Woody Allen (Part Two) – Vicky Cristina Barcelona

As promised, here’s my follow up to my first thoughts on Woody Allen’s films.

This week I watched 2008’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which Allen wrote and directed. Although he doesn’t appear himself this time we are instead treated to displays of neuroticism from both Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), the eponymous friends visiting (you guessed it), Barcelona.

The use of narration in voice-over throughout is a little clumsy, with a few grammatical mistakes suggesting it may have been recorded rather quickly to make release, but in most cases it succeeds in maintaining engagement with the story, which is just as character-driven as Allen’s more recent pictures.

As with the later To Rome with Love, Vicky Cristina Barcelona sees Allen focus on various romantic relationships, using the diametrically opposed characters of Vicky and Cristina as a starting point. Although they may first appear to be rather clichéd archetypes, Allen’s female leads are allowed to develop and surprise as the film progresses. The plot elegantly weaves together various love triangles, beginning with the flirtatious Juan Antonio’s (Javier Bardem) proposal to sleep with both Vicky and Cristina.

Of course, great characters only emerge through a combination of good writing and acting. The leads are competent and convincing, though these are not exactly career-defining performances. Patricia Clarkson, however, playing the girls’ host, Judy, provides proof of her versatility (after starring in Will Gluck’s Easy A and follow-up Friends with Benefits she was accused of displaying little variation). The attention to Judy’s relationship with her husband Mark (Kevin Dunn) may not be what the film was remembered for, but it’s just as touching as the younger characters’ storylines. Despite being paralleled with Vicky, Judy’s feelings of marital dissatisfaction are also similar to the experiences of Johansson’s character.

Maria Elena, Juan Antonio and Cristina before the fireworks

Maria Elena, Juan Antonio and Cristina before the fireworks

The aforementioned love triangle which develops between Vicky, Cristina and Juan Antonio is further complicated by the arrival of Vicky’s fiancé Doug (Chris Messina). A hasty marriage suggests sparks between Vicky and Juan Antonio will be brushed under the carpet, but ultimately Doug’s presence allows for a sensitive consideration of the politics of adultery (as well as some rather irritating female over-thinking).

Polygamy, perhaps an even more controversial issue, and certainly a rarer focus for commercial cinema, is well-handled when the reappearance of Juan Antonio’s ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) complicates the burgeoning relationship between Juan Antonio and Cristina. Allen alters what could have been simply a clichéd jealous-ex-scenario into a more thoughtful and intriguing narrative. Penelope Cruz gives an impressive bilingual, bisexual performance, charged with far more emotional power than her appearance as a prostitute in To Rome with Love, which provided snappy one-liners but not a lot of emotional weight.

Although Vicky Cristina Barcelona lives up to the decent characterisation and even better acting that I’m coming to expect from Allen’s work, this effort is somewhat less supernatural in its plot. It’s more kitchen sink than magic realism, but just as effective as the Francophile counterpart Midnight in Paris. In fact, techniques like the narration sometimes give Vicky Cristina Barcelona a theatrical, rather than cinematic, atmosphere. But don’t fret, there’s still a signature intro-montage of the titular city’s architecture and landmarks.

After enjoying but not exactly being blown away by some of Woody Allen’s recent work, I now intend to backtrack to his films of the late 70s and 80s, probably my favourite era for American cinema.


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