Deceptively frivolous, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is in fact one of the most thoughtful films you will see this year, writes Paul Fennessy.
Woody Allen has always been synonymous with paradox. He claims to despise the limelight, but still routinely casts himself in his own films. In addition, Allen rejects the public perception of him as an intellectual, even though his films are laced with references to arduous Russian novels and obscure painters.
And perhaps most incredulously of all, the acclaimed director purports to disavow onscreen autobiography, while at the same time ensuring that the likable characters in his films are without exception, neurotic, sensitive artists’ relentlessly bemoaning life’s inequities. Needless to say therefore, his latest film conforms to these tendencies.
The story focuses on an enigmatic Latin lothario named Juan Antonio (played with the appropriate level of charm by Javier Bardem) and his various sexual conquests. Juan Antonio befriends and subsequently romances two American friends (Vicky and Cristina) who are spending the summer in Spain, thereby instigating a complex chain of events.
“The picture can best be described as a filmic essay on relationships”
The scenario is complicated by the fact that Cristina is engaged to her boyfriend back in the States. Furthermore, the reappearance of Juan Antonio’s suicidal ex-wife (Penelope Cruz) also adds an extra layer of tension to proceedings.
And it is Cruz (deservedly garnering an Oscar nomination for her efforts) who provides the movie’s standout performance, expertly portraying the disconcerting level of insecurity and bitchiness which her character exudes. Meanwhile, Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Wood also emote in their respective roles.
Most importantly however, the film is a triumph for Allen, who required a strong showing after last year’s woeful Cassandra’s Dream. Though his script occasionally flirts with the kind of pretentiousness which the director is prone to (“I fell in love with Gaudi’s church when I was fourteen,” Wood’s character fawns at one point), the film ultimately remains reassuringly Woody-esque, while still offering a deluge of surprises throughout.
Yet initially, Vicky Cristina Barcelona appears to be a markedly straightforward romantic comedy. Juan Antonio is the archetypal exotic foreigner with an appealing allure of mystique. Meanwhile, the two female leads are more or less the antithesis of one another. Cristina is the sassy, impulsive girl, whose personality is imbued with moral bankruptcy and Vicky is the pure, virginal type, inveterately cautious in her undertakings.
Nevertheless, it would be unlike Allen to create such a stringently derivative offering and thus, the story swiftly shifts into unexpected terrain. Characters who you thought were stereotypical reveal surprising layers of depth and unlike the majority of romantic comedies, it is almost impossible to foretell the films eventual outcome.
Overall, the film evokes Ingmar Bergman’s early comedies such as Smiles of a Summer Night, with its mixture of the playful and the profound. It can consequently best be described as a filmic essay on relationships, but one which is obscured by the guise of entertainment value.
Along with its contemplative tone, Vicky Cristina Barcelona just so happens to include some of cinema’s most beautiful actors frolicking amidst sumptuous surrounds. Hence, for Woody Allen, the paradox persists.