Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

And so, Woody’s Grand Tour continues. After a lengthy sojourn in England with mixed results (culminating in the critically-reviled - though not by this website - Cassandra’s Dream) he’s gone off to Spain. And, sad reflection on the English climate though this may be, it seems to have done him the world of good.

Put another way, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is the best movie this wonderful writer/director has made in a long time; funny, sharp, perfectly paced and rather gorgeously shot, with a quartet of cracking parts for excellent actors placed firmly at its centre.

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The story concerns two American girls, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), lifelong friends but with completely different temperaments. Vicky, nearing the end of her Catalan Studies degree, is sensible and practical, with a long-term fiancé; Cristina is a mercurial pleasure and attention-seeker, drifting from one ‘creative project’ to another. When a family friend, Judy (Patricia Clarkson) invites them to spend the summer at her house in Barcelona they jump at the chance.

They’re hardly off the plane when Judy takes them to an art gallery opening and points out Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), an abstract artist with a growing reputation but a scandalous past – a tempestuous marriage to a fellow artist ended when she tried to kill him. Later, Juan approaches the girls in a restaurant and invites them to fly away with him to Oviedo for the weekend – “we see some beautiful sights, have good food and wine, and then we make love”.

Well, doesn’t that always happen to YOU on a trip to Spain? The girls’ reactions conform to type – Vicky’s on the point of calling the police, while Cristina sees it as the perfect start to her European adventure and eventually persuades the reluctant Vicky to accompany her.

The beautiful sights are duly supplied but the good food and wine aggravate Cristina’s stomach ulcer just as she’s about to tick off Item Three on the itinerary. As she spends the weekend in bed, Juan continues to show Vicky around – and, despite herself, she becomes increasingly attracted to him.

It’s best not to give away too much else about the plot. Suffice to say that twists and turns abound. Chief among them is the reappearance of Juan’s ex-wife Marie Elena (Penelope Cruz) – undoubtedly bonkers, but equally undoubtedly sexy, and still holding a torch for him.

The threesome (which ends up being between her, Juan and Cristina) has generated the most pre-release publicity but anyone coming to this simply for the Hollywood babe-on-babe action will be disappointed, and probably very bored. Allen stops at the bedroom door and, as always, this is a film about relationships, not sex.

That’s always what he’s been best at and, for the first time in what seems a long time, it’s the principal focus of the film. At heart, all the characters are basically decent people trying to find love and happiness. Fortunately for Woody, none of them are quite sure what that means, or the best way to go about looking for it. Initially I thought this might be explored in that earnest, ponderous way that makes some of his ‘serious’ films such a long slog. The film takes a while to deliver its first laugh-out-loud one-liner and the offscreen narrator (Christopher Evan Welch), explaining the plot and the girls’ characters in an ingenuous faux-travelogue manner, takes a bit of getting used to.

But once it hits its stride, the gleefully farcical complications come thick and fast and the laugh rate is very consistent, without ever obscuring the serious points about the many ways in which people can contrive to sabotage what is, on the face of it, one of the simplest things in the world. Yes, it’s slightly neurotic people going on and on about their love lives again; that’s what he does best and if you’re not an Allen fan this certainly won’t be the one to convert you.

It could also be argued that this is a somewhat stereotypical view of Spain and the Spanish. The Barcelona and Oviedo tourist boards have got nothing to worry about from this one, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that every Spaniard is either an artist, a poet or a flamenco guitarist, living in beautiful houses and able to drink wine all day without ever getting sloshed (or indeed, in Juan’s case, suffering from brewer’s droop).

But a side-effect of this is that Allen the director expands on his usual point-and-shoot style, clearly enraptured and emboldened by the Gaudi architecture and the golden hues of a Spanish summer to create some stunning and quirky camerawork. At heart, though, this is all about the characters and his principals certainly deliver. Special praise must go to Hall, such a winning presence in Starter For 10, and making the most of a dream opportunity to expand her film CV after some excellent stage and TV work. She nails the American accent completely, and her Vicky is a fascinating mixture of boldness and reserve, in love with Spanish culture while in many ways not really understanding the passion and pathos at its heart.

Johansson is a slightly more conventional creation – the self-consciously Bohemian wild child really into art and, you know, that kind of stuff, who finds herself unable to commit to a genuinely unusual relationship or lifestyle. But she brings out the warmth and passion for life of her character, to an extent that the central friendship becomes a believable one of contrasting but complementing personalities. Bardem (a long way from the unfortunately-haired psycho of No Country For Old Men) and Cruz turn what could be very cliched roles into rounded and sympathetic, but at the same time very seductive, characters.

As the foursome strike sparks off each other, it becomes apparent that Woody has got his comic mojo back. It never quite reaches the sublime heights of his best work, but it’s a step in the right direction. Now, if someone could perhaps lure him back to Manhattan...

Reviewed on: 29 Oct 2008
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Vicky Cristina Barcelona packshot
Two young American girls on holiday in Barcelona become romantically involved with a Spanish painter.
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Stephen Carty ****

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