Vicky Cristina Barcelona
by Jef Burnham
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Following last year’s staggering failure, Cassandra’s Dream, Woody Allen woos audiences again with this dramedy starring Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, and Penelope Cruz. Trading his recent setting of England for Spain, Allen’s style settles comfortably into the landscapes of the sweeping Spanish villas that house Allen’s typical bourgeois Americans and tortured Spanish artists.
The film follows a sort-of love rectangle between two American friends, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Johansson), visiting Barcelona for the summer; a brooding Spanish painter named Juan Antonio (Bardem); and his unstable ex-wife, the fiery Maria Elana (Cruz). The constant back-and-forth of lovers is far more successful here than in Allen’s A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, attributable in no small part to Bardem’s immense charm from the first moment you see Juan Antonio leaning against a pillar at an art gallery. The story peaks as (Warning: spoilers!) the now-married Vicky remains fixated on Juan Antonio after a single romantic weekend, and Juan Antonio ends up sharing a bed with both Cristina and Maria Elana. Allen’s love for beautiful women, which began onscreen with his longtime Diane Keaton collaboration, remains strong, as demonstrated in his concoction of the aforementioned threesome with Johansson and Cruz.
The cinematography beautifully frames the Spanish countryside in a way reminiscent of, though nowhere near as perfect as, that of Nestor Almendros’ work. The camerawork is hampered only by a frequent shifting in and out of focus. Somehow, for me, this loss of focus underscores the slight awkwardness that Allen’s dialogue has developed over recent years. Shifting from natural to forced in mid-sentence, the dialogue in Allen’s films becomes more and more like that of a stage play with each subsequent film. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It shows that, even after all these years, Allen’s style is still evolving.
The single biggest flaw in the film is the incessant, and completely unnecessary, narration delivered by Christopher Evan Welch. In the film’s opening, it acts as a means by which Allen saves himself the trouble of developing the characters of Vicky and Cristina through natural exposition. Without this narration, we would have little to go on in regards to those characters. However, after that, it becomes totally superfluous, often reiterating exactly what is being shown. After a time, the narration ceases to be an annoyance, as the incredible amount of it forces you to develop a tolerance to it.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is by no means Allen’s greatest film, but it definitely feels like a return to the Woody Allen whose films occupy a large space on my DVD shelf.
Jef Burnham is a writer and a film critic in Chicago.
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