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Films: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (12a)

Stuart Ian Burns is swept away by Woody Allen's Spanish harem

Published on February 16th 2009.

Films: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (12a)

GLANCING at the poster for Vicky Cristina Barcelona, two elements reveal themselves. Firstly the notices, four and five star ratings and the kind of gleeful quotes which haven’t greeted one of Woody Allen’s films in quite some time. But also, and just as a measure of how far the director’s reputation has sunk, his name only actually appears in the credits at the bottom: No “A Film by Woody Allen” to complement the shot of Scarlett, Javier and Penelope climbing on one another’s shoulders.

This is a bit of false advertising. It’s all here you see, the trademark opening titles (that white on black font over jazz music he’s used since Annie Hall), the abrupt editing, the wordy dialogue laced with poetry and psychological self discovery, a clinical narration sharply revealing the thoughts and feelings of the characters, counter-pointing the apparent reality. It is closer to the art-house style, and nothing like the rather bland Hollywood experience that the blurb suggests. No wonder a couple of teenagers stalked out of the screening part way through.

Also a pity, because this is the director’s film of the decade, a dramatic return to form after last year’s disastrous Cassandra’s Dream and just the kind of work which even us fans can enjoy without resorting to the usual rationalisations about how none of the other directors who did their best work during the 1970s and 1980s are replicating their success now.

It’s quite simply a delight to be able to recommend one of Allen's films without qualification or highlighting one admirable element (Scarlett! The ghosts! The music!).

Allen's film is about seduction of the characters and so the audience. Two middle class students from New York holidaying in Barcelona, the titular Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Johansson) are enjoying a quite meal in a restaurant until they’re propositioned by a stranger, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) who suggests that the three of them fly out to nearby Oviedo, for some sightseeing, some wine drinking and oh yes, some love making (I wish I had this confidence).

Vicky, whose conventional approach to romance has led to an engagement with a very conventional man, is appalled and repelled. Cristina is intrigued and so are we, asking repeatedly (to paraphrase Butch and Sundance) “Who is this guy?” Somehow, somewhere, between his deep voice, oak-like frame and shadowy eyes, both women are drawn in, right up until they find themselves face to face with his stormy, unhinged ex-wife (Penelope Cruz).

Cruz deserved the BAFTA for her multifaceted performance as the psychologically crippled Maria Elena, unable to function with or without Juan Antonio. All too often American directors employ her to be the exotic unattainable beauty, but Allen is inspired by Pedro Almodovar in allowing the actress some latitude to present an emotionally complex personality.

Barden and Johansson are eye-catching enough, but the emotional heart of the film is Hall, whose face ripples constantly with expression. Vicky is between temptation and outside expectations, the heart and the head at war.

Hers is the character most of us identify with and by the time Vicky falls under Juan Antonio's spell, the film has us in its clutches too. We’re constantly aware that this is the hardly-feminist account of an artist wrapping the hearts of three women around his paint brush, but all the while we’re beguiled.

The visuals of local cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe create a state of reverie, his camera unfolding scenes like morning bedclothes. Spanish guitar music permeates those visuals and like Vicky, when she hears fingertips plucking strings, we’re enraptured. You can almost smell the chorizo.

Admittedly, the film features the same kind of hyper-tourism view of a city that the director has employed in his London films, rationalised here because Vicky is studying for a “Master's degree in Catalan culture”, allowing her to visit Gaudi’s intriguing architecture.

That worked against those London morality tales, whereas in this romantic drama it helps us to understand why these girls are lured into what turns out to be very alternative lifestyles. Allen plays the assumptions of society off against the bewitching bohemianism of Bardem and Cruz and their home town.

This tension adds depth to the proceedings and underlines why, even though this may still be minor Allen, it’s still so much more interesting and enticing than the average rom-com in which someone is a superhero or they’re buying a dog. As ever with Allen, there’s already another film in the can (Whatever Works with Larry David) and yet another announced. He’s returning to London for that one and let’s hope that he somehow manages to bring some of the magic displayed here to the streets of our capital.

If that’s possible.

*Vicky Cristina Barcelona @ Picture House, FACT, Wood Street, and on general release.

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6 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousFebruary 16th 2009.

and make them pay a fixed penalty...twatts

pantieFebruary 16th 2009.

I haven't seen the film yet. My girlfriend isn't sure she wants to see it as I believe the 2 girls' kiss! My estimation of my g.f has gone down down down

Ann E. HallFebruary 16th 2009.

There is a woman smoking a cigarette in the picture. Our loony Council will ban it from all cinemas within Liverpool's borders - Fascists!

AnonymousFebruary 16th 2009.


Movie loverFebruary 16th 2009.

My favourite underrated Woody Allen film of recent years was Mighty Aprodite. The theme of sex sees Woody Allen at his best and he really is a cinematic phenomenon of our generation and movies will be poorer come the day he is no longer making them. He has come on leaps and bounds with this film. I just hope he manages to keep Larry David's excesses in check.

AnonymousFebruary 16th 2009.

Scarlett Johansson "actress"actually is a clone from original person,who has nothing with acting career.Clone was created illegally using stolen biomaterial.Original Scarlett Galabekian last name is nice, CHRISTIAN young

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