One of the most prodigious filmmakers of the last forty years, Woody Allen has had as many misses as hits in his long career – particularly in the last ten years. He churns out his films – one a year – and more often than not writes himself into the story, playing some version of the same self-obsessed comic neurotic. What makes Vicky Cristina Barcelona so fresh and accessible is that Allen has absented himself – both as actor and through the writing. It’s definitely the Woody Allen film to see if you don’t want to see Woody Allen.
Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansen) are two young American women on holiday in Barcelona. Vicky – sensible and self-assured – is about to be married to reliable Doug who calls her regularly from New York to outline their future. Cristina on the other hand is impulsive and looking for something in life that she can’t define – adventure, love, a bit of life. When she spots smoldering artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), she is instantly attracted, despite his outrageously forward manner. Before long the two women are drawn into his hedonistic life – made emotionally complicated by the arrival of his explosive ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz). As the four of them move between Barcelona and beautiful Oviedo, the mix of Spanish passion, ancient city, beautiful people and warm summer nights is enough to test even the cautious Vicky.
We are guided through this tangled tale of love by an unseen and omnipotent narrator (thankfully not Allen but the calm and neutral voice of Christopher Evan Welch) who fills in details, provides access to the hearts and minds of the central characters, and gives the whole film the air of a parable. Veiled beyond the warm and wafting story are lessons about the illusive nature of love – and the fundamental differences between America and Europe.
The cast is in superb touch – in particular English actress Rebecca Hall who has to hold back her desires, and Spanish actress Cruz who definitely does not. It’s Cruz’s character that provides much of the fun and energy of the story – in particular her scenes with Bardem, where language is no barrier to performance.
Allen has definitely made something special with this charming, light and warm romantic comedy – not so much back on (his now outdated) form, as finally in a new, more contemporary and much more relaxed groove.