Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Vicky Christina Barcelona

Something amazing happens about 20 minutes in Woody Allen's latest opus, Vicky Christina Barcelona. Without a major shift in tone, it subtly but suddenly ceases to be a pretentious summer romp and becomes something so much more. For the remaining 70 minutes, Allen subverts that small niche of films in which women go to Europe and find wild passion, creating a layered portrait that, though it does not stand on the level of his 70s masterpieces, nevertheless shows that Allen's got some fire in him still.

A narrator opens the film and describes the two titular characters: Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is a practical woman, engaged to a well-off but boring man named Doug (Chris Messina); Christina (Scarlett Johansson), on the other hand, is carefree and spontaneous. Vicky visits Barcelona to get her master's degree in Catalin identity, and Christina just tags along and tries to figure out what she wants from life. Both stay with Vicky's distant relative Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and her husband Mark (Kevin Dunn), a peripheral couple who will become significant later in the film.

One day Vicky and Christina attend an art exhibition, where they spot Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), an artist rumored to have broken up with his wife after abusing her. They then go to a restaurant where Juan approaches and attempts to seduce them, and he even invites them to join him in Oviedo for the weekend. Vicky of course is having none of it, but Christina finds herself intrigued by Juan's mysteriousness and his boldness, so Vicky has to come along to "protect Christina from making a big mistake."

It's here that the film starts to evolve; these first 20 minutes consist of little more than pompous dialogue that sounds more like a series of soliloquies than human conversation. However, when Vicky and Christina reach Oviedo, suddenly the film comes alive; ironic, considering how somber it really is beneath its warm veneer.

Allen's films always deal with sexuality in frank, unique ways, and Vicky Christina Barcelona is no different; Christina goes back to Juan's room in Oviedo, but comes down with food poisoning before anything happens. To pass the time while Christina recovers, Vicky accompanies Juan around town, meeting his father and ending up in a small acoustic guitar concert. Overwhelmed by their sheer "European-ness" of it all, Vicky succumbs to her desires and sleeps with Juan.

Then things get a little complicated. Vicky's fiancé decides to come to Spain to get hitched, and Christina gets better and shacks up with Juan. Now guilt-ridden and more uncertain of her marriage than ever, Vicky buries her pain from both Doug and Christina, who doesn't know about her tryst with Antonio. Hall has been sadly under-praised for her work in the film, as she puts in a wonderfully understated performance.

Christina seems to find something to latch onto at last with Juan, who introduces her to his artistic friends around whom "she could hold her own." She takes up photography and seems to find happiness. Until Juan's ex-wife shows up that is. Juan receives a call that Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz) tried to kill herself and brings her back to his home to monitor her.Clearly unstable, Maria initially despises Christina and resents the fact that she's now a guest in her own home, but the three eventually form a close bond, looking to polyamorous sex for emotional stability. This ain't your average rom-com, that's for sure.

Cruz puts in her finest performance to date as Maria, moving through the film like a maelstrom, but tempers her moments of manic abandon with sympathetic calm, and it keeps her character grounded and fascinating. Maria mentions to Christina that something was always missing in her relationship, and Christina might be that missing link. In this bizarre threesome, each of the characters finds some happiness: Juan finally settles into his relationship, Maria stabilizes and Christina finally finds her direction in life. Meanwhile, Vicky smolders with longing and pain for such a connection.

This is all very moody and revealing, but Allen throws us for one final loop at the end. As he so often does with his characters' relationships, Allen slowly pulls them apart. When this first came out, I saw a number of reviews calling it a great summer picture, and I don't know what movie they watched. Allen uses his beautiful backdrops and his superb cast (all of whom put in some of their best work, particularly Cruz, who certainly earned her Oscar nomination) to craft a tale of regret and loss. Not all films end with happy couples, but even when they end where they begin we are led to believe that these characters are at least bettered or more wizened by their experiences. Vicky Christina Barcelona offers no such reprieve; Allen wants us to know that, often, people can only ever be teased with happiness, and the knowledge that they'll never attain it hardly makes them better for the experience.

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