Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

By Elise Nakhnikian

In his latest movie, Woody Allen does for Barcelona what he used to do for New York. Watching beautiful young people explore a beautiful old city, you’re not so much watching a couple of tourists as becoming one yourself. While Vicky (Rebecca Hall), Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), and their lovers are falling for idealized versions of one another, we’re falling in love with an idealized vision of the city where they live.

Vicky and Cristina are gorgeous girls on the cusp of adulthood who are spending the summer in Barcelona. Vicky is a responsible young woman, in Spain to do research for a master’s thesis on Catalan culture, but her best friend, Cristina, is adrift. Cristina knows more about what she doesn’t want than what she does, but she’s sure she wants authenticity, art, and adventure.

She finds all three in Juan Antonio Gonzalez (Javier Bardem), a gifted painter and a romantic who’s determined to live life to the fullest. Juan Antonio is the kind of guy who not only invites you to the perfect country getaway for the weekend but flies you there himself. And did I mention he’s played by Javier Bardem? The moment Bardem swivels that exquisite profile to clap those soulful eyes on our girls, we know they’re goners, though it takes Vicky a while to realize that none of her carefully laid plans can protect her – not even her imminent wedding.

Juan Antonio’s serial seductions of the two and the feelings that awakens in them – not to mention the complications that swirl up whenever his tempestuous ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz) shows up – makes for a satisfying highbrow soap. Vicky Cristina Barcelona isn’t deep, but it’s not shallow either. The narration keeps it moving briskly, hopping from one high to another. Its wit, creamy cinematography, and frequent emotional peaks keep things engaging, but there’s a kind of wistfulness underlying it all.

As always, Allen has cast his movie brilliantly. Bardem and Cruz are magnificent, both separately and together. Their on-again, off-again, occasionally homicidal marriage functions best when they set up a ménage a trois with Cristina. In their role as the “anything goes” couple, Juan Antonio and Cristina sometimes take things too far, but Bardem and Cruz make the pair not just plausible but loveable, showing us the outsized emotions and sense of honor that prevent them from playing by the rules most of us live by.

Rebecca Hall was a revelation to me, though I admired her in The Wide Sargasso Sea and found her magician’s wife very sympathetic in The Prestige. Maybe it’s just the close-ups Allen and director of photography Javier Aguirresarobe lavish on their actors, but her sensitive rendering of a proud young woman whose defense are crumbling feels like a career-changing performance.

Chris Messina makes you feel for the earnest bore of a boyfriend Vicky is forever talking to her on her cell, who seems decent, devoted, and crashingly dull.

Even Johannson fits her role. She still reads her lines as if she were reading lines, but she’s less wooden than usual, and her residual stiffness could be interpreted as a sign of Cristina’s much-discussed lack of self-confidence. Besides, though I don’t find her almost boneless brand of beauty particularly attractive, I’m obviously in the minority there. Her pillowy lips certainly captivate Allen, who lingers on shots of her face when Cristina makes love, though he cuts to everyone else either just before or after the act.

Johannson starred in Allen’s last two movies (Match Point and Scoop), and while they weren’t nearly as good as this one, they shared a focus on younger characters and their concerns that has rejuvenated his work. His aging neurotics, who had overstayed their welcome a bit, now people the edges of his stories rather than sitting at their centers. Rather than dwell on the angst and frustrations of people who’ve long since settled into a routine, he’s looking at the lifelong consequences of choices we make while we’re young. And, while he’s still prone to pairing very young women with older men, the age difference is not so extreme in Vicky Cristina Barcelona – and the arrangement seems less creepy because we see it from the women’s point of view. In fact, Vicky Cristina is a little like Manhattan as it might have been experienced by the Mariel Hemingway character.

But Allen’s age, and his own well-publicized rollercoaster of a romantic life, give this story a perspective no twenty-something could have. While Allen gives both practical Vicky and romantic Cristina their due, he makes it clear that neither is traveling a sure road to fulfillment.

The last shot is of the two friends as they walk through the airport on their way back to the United States. In what may be a conscious homage to The Graduate, what starts out as a traditional-seeming wrap-up soon takes on an unsettling feel as the camera lingers on their impassive faces. Grab the good things in life while you can, Allen seems to be saying. Pleasure is fleeting; only pain endures.

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