Thursday, July 31, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Written & Directed By: Woody Allen

Starring: Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz,Scarlett Johanssen, Rebecca Hall

My rating: 9/10

I have been a huge Woody Allen fan since the day I saw The Purple Rose of Cairo back in the early 90's. His sharp dialogue, complex relationships and really cool characters living where I want to live and having careers that I want. What's not to love about Woody Allen movies? The problem is, the past few Woody Allen films, actually anything after Bullets Over Broadway have made me feel a bit empty afterwards. Usually they're enjoyable enough (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion excluded) but afterwards there's just a feeling of lack of effort or that Woody Allen has forgotten how to be Woody Allen. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is the first time I've really felt a spark from him in well over a decade.

Set in sunny Barcelona, the film has a warm, enticing glow to it that is rare in Allen's dreary, New York-set films. This seems to rub off on his characters because they all seem to be a little bit sunnier than his usual characters. Not that there isn't darkly complex human emotion going on here, it's here in spades.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johanssen)are on summer holidays in Barcelona, staying with Vicky's aunt. Vicky and Cristina, the narrator points out, could not be more different when it comes to men. Vicky needs stability and Cristina prefers grand romantic love affairs that always end abruptly and badly. When the pair meet sexy painter Juan Antonio they are both eventually seduced by his passion and his seemingly genuine romantic heart. As Cristina enters into a relationship with him, his ex-wife, crazy genius Marie-Elena (Penelope Cruz) comes back into his life and they live together and bond together as a threesome in love, finally giving Cristina a passionate realtionship and also making Juan Antonio and Marie-Elena's relationship work. In the meantime, Vicky marries her fiancee, boring Doug who seems to only talk about the house they're going to buy when they get home. Vicky, swayed and confused by the temptation of loving someone with passion and charisma but who will surely hurt her must struggle with her feelings as the events of the summer play out.

The reason why this film works is because each character is written in the most truly animated way. They are neurotic and playful and fascinating. Everyone here deserves credit for their performances. They are all wonderful and the chemistry between all the leads is electric. Woody Allen's sharp dialogue harkens back to when he was the top of his game. Lately, he may be accused of being a bit too Woody Allen but missing the mark but here his banter is perfectly scripted and his characters are full of life. I found it marvellous how he captured the essence of a generation of women that must be alien to him, at his age. He portrays Vicky perfectly and her conflict between passion and stability and I loved his willingness to make fun of Cristina's pretentiousness and lack of interest in anything other than the cool bohemian lifestyle.

A lot has been made of the love scene between Scarlett Johanssen and Penelope Cruz. I hate to burst anyone's bubble but you pretty much see most of it in the trailer. However, the film bursts with sexual energy throughout which is a credit to the enthusiasm of its cast. Penelope Cruz gives a truly standout performance here. Babbling in Spanish about love and art and craziness, she is on fire in every one of her scenes and she and real-life lover Javier Bardem are great together onscreen. Hopefully she won't be denied an Oscar this year after the Academy failed to reward her for her wonderful work on Almodovar's Volver.

I highly recommend this film. If you're a Woody Allen fan, it's a refreshingly upbeat (if ultimately as pessimistic as his other films) film that truly modernises his original brilliance and remind us why we loved him in the first place. If you're not a fan of Woody Allen, there's enough here to entertain you anyway. It doesn't parade his stamp around like many of his films do. It's an enjoyable comedy/drama about the nature of passionate love and asks whether it exists at all and if it does, can it ever survive?

- Charlene Lydon 31/07/08

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