Friday, December 19, 2008

Vicky Christina Barcelona

“I was in love with the most incredible woman, and she put a knife into me.”
“That’s terrible!”
“Well, maybe you did something to deserve it.”

Two American women find themselves in Barcelona for the summer with friends (Patricia Clarkson, Kevin Dunn). Our leading ladies, as our narrator (Christopher Evan Welch) informs us, are as different as friends can be.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is responsible and rational, always making the smart call and against silly flights of fancy or taking chances. She is engaged to be married to a nice stable man (Chris Messina) back home in the States.

Christina (Scarlett Johansson) is a free spirit and dreamer unsure about life or her career (she recently wrote, directed, and starred in a a short film about the meaning of love which, by the time she finished, she hated).

One night the pair are approached by a local artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), still in love with his unstable ex-wife (Penélope Cruz), who propositions them both. Although Vicky balks at his offer Christina finds him charming and accepts. Separately both women’s lives will be turned upside down by Juan Antonio as they begin to look at life and love in an entirely new way.

Rather than the big murder mysteries he’s given us lately, such as the dramatic Match Point (read the review) and Cassandra’s Dream (read the review) and the humorous Scoop (read the review), writer/director Woody Allen creates this wonderful tale of love and provides opportunities for each of his stars to shine. Johansson gives her best performance since Lost in Translation, Rebecca Hall provides the quick dry wit so well-suited for Allen’s dialogue, and Penélope Cruz takes control of the screen as a force of nature. Longtime RF fans will remember I’ve been less than impressed with much of Cruz’s work in American films, but here she’s simply marvelous! Although she doesn’t make an appearance until well past the half-way point it’s impossible to discuss the film without praising her performance. And don’t forget Bardem who, in not an easy task, holds his own with each of these women in an understated performance.

Not forgetting his supporting cast Allen provides some great moments for Clarkson, Dunn, and Messina. And our unseen narator provides many of the films early laughs. But it’s Barcelona and the surrounding countryside which gives the film its feel and tone. From Gaudi to the Spanish guitar, to the rolling countryside, here is a location to inspire the types of love our characters yearn for, discover, and struggle against.

In another director’s hands this tale of love and lust could easily have become lurid or comical in the wrong way. Allen presents us with real characters dealing with choices and open to ideas not the norm. There’s a scene in the film between Johansson, Hall, and Messina in which Christina describes the life she’s chosen much to the shock of Vicky’s fiance. Such scenes can be found in countless B-movies dealing with the taboo subject matter, but here Allen adds a touch of class, humor, and thought, which makes all the difference.

Allen’s film is filled with many small, but important, choices. As Christina flees to Barcelona only to escape one reality for another, Vicky is there for a purpose, researching Catalan culture. It is in both Christina’s directionless search for direction and love of art, and the unexpected depth of Vicky’s love of the region and culture, that provides vastly different connections and relationships with Juan Antonio and his world. He is not a gigolo and they are neither saints nor tarts, but flesh and blood characters searching for love. What so easily could have been tawdry becomes romantic, even with some of the absurdities of its results.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself with this unexpected little film which is one of the year’s best. Allen breathes new life into his career and for the first time in years doesn’t feel like he’s plagiarizing himself or struggling with past themes. The Bohemian feel of the film mixed with the lush backdrop of Barcelona is an intoxicating mixture. Here he has provided something worth savoring with a film full of terrific performances and memorable moments.

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