With Vicky Christina Barcelona Woody stayed in Europe but changed locations from the grey skies of England to the golden sunsets of Spain. Along with a change of genre and by recruiting one of his best small ensembles, he scored a bit hit worldwide with this film. Watching it again this week reaffirmed for me that it is one of his best.
The Vicky and Christina of the title are two American tourists on an extended stay in Barcelona. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is soon to be married while Christina (Scarlett Johansson) is open for wherever life and love leads her. When they are both propositioned by a Spanish painter, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), they join him for a weekend in Oviedo. Surprisingly it is Vicky who is seduced, though it is only a one night stand and once back in Barcelona, Christina moves in with Juan Antonio and later, his volatile ex-wife, María Elena (Penélope Cruz). After several complications, the two young women return to the US with their separate views on love challenged but ultimately unchanged.
This week I was able to let the film wash over me and enjoy it without concentrating on identifying the Woodyisms which would connect it with the rest of his work. Maybe that’s because it appears, at least on the surface, to be the least like any other Woody Allen film. If it wasn’t for the familiar font and title cards at the opening, it could almost be someone else’s movie. We have a new soundtrack (mostly Spanish guitar) and a new visual style, with iris-in and outs, and leisurely dissolves. We also have a Woodyless cast, and a story involving people under the age of 50 who don’t work in film or publishing. And of course we have the titular setting: a gorgeously and golden European setting.
So if he is not in the cast, where is Woody in this film? Obviously as its writer he is there as the juggler of two conflicting philosophies concerning romantic attraction. He is also there in the deftly handled multiple points of view, and the points of view of women at that. (Hannah and her Sisters is a worthy comparison.) In fact, once you have enjoyed the love story, one of the structural delights of this film is its seamless shifting of protagonists. The film’s marketing promoted this as Christina and Juan Antonio and María Elena’s love triangle story, but really it’s Christina and Vicky’s story. I suppose it’s there in the title to remind me, but until watching it again I had misremembered how much this is really a film about Vicky.
The cast is entirely great, especially Cruz in her Oscar winning performance. Like Uncle Howard in Cassandra’s Dream (and Hannibal Lecter come to think of it in Silence of the Lambs) we hear about this character so often before she appears that expectations are high for something truly exceptional. The supporting cast is also uniformly excellent, which includes Kevin Dunn and Patricia Clarkson as an older couple who serve as a warning of a life half lived to Vicky, as well as Chris Messina as the fiancé who may lead Vicky into just such a life. With Woody still in tourist filmmaker mode, the scenery and the lifestyle of Barcelona is very appealing, with niggling questions such as how any of the characters pay for anything left blissfully unanswered.
Light on reality, high on romance, in many ways the film is a complete fantasy. But why nitpick or analyse? With Vicky Christina Barcelona Woody Allen got off the psychiatrist’s couch and put his theories of love and self-deception into play with a very attractive background and set of characters. Like those characters, it’s best to go with the flow, have yet another glass of wine and surrender to the charms of this unassuming great film.
Next week: Whatever Works