20 August 2008

Vicky Christina Barcelona: Show, Don't Tell

I've never had the expat experience, and therefore am a little smug about the concept (part envy and part skepticism towards those who have/claim one.) In Woody Allen's latest film, Vicky Christina Barcelona, two well-heeled American 20-something girls flit off to Barcelona for the summer, and although the friends are follicular and romantic opposites, they both become enchanted by the Bohemian/Spanish lifestyle as embodied by Juan Antonio.

The film moves along nicely thanks to the beautiful shots of the city, a feverishly catchy score and the help of the disdainful narrator, who all but loathes the dramatic absurdities of his heroines, giving the entire film a slightly tongue-in-cheek feel.

But, I don't really see Mr. Allen's point. This isn't a film written for or really about youth (kind of in the same mold as Tom Wolfe writing about a college age girl.) And for all the hype about threesomes and whatnot, the sexual exploits aren't even shocking. Plus, everything is so pristine and everyone is so inexplicably wealthy, carefree and quirky, that it is really difficult to accept this world as reality. Everything is overdone – over explained, over analyzed and the audience is given little to discover on their own.

Woody Allen is praised for his ability to write vibrant female characters, but all the women in this film are shallow and unconvincing as real people. Maybe his reputation comes from writing characters outside of the "hooker, victim, doormat" mold, which is an accomplishment, certainly, but his heroines in this film are disappointing.

Vicky (the brunette) is feisty and delightful at the beginning of the film, rejecting Juan Antonio's advances and balking at the pretensions of her friend. But her character is ruined after spending a hot night with Juan Antonio. She spends the rest of the movie skulking around, pitying herself and admitting resigned defeat to a life of banality, country clubs and Westchester homes. Suppose she'll just have to get back to work on her thesis on Catalan culture (seriously).

We're told to believe that Christina (the blonde) is a restless bohemian, who rejects the mores of American society. The narrator tells the audience that she "holds her own quite well" amongst the painters and poets. As far as the viewer is concerned, Christina is a lot of talk with the singular demonstrable talent and quality of being seductive. The rest we're just asked to accept as truths. At first the desperate grasp for artistic credibility seemed hilarious. I thought that we were all in on the joke (“Christina stayed up late, drinking coffee and writing poetry…”). But then, halfway through the film, it's “revealed” that she has a great talent for photography, and she charms the brilliant Juan Antonio and his insatiable ex-wife Maria Elena to somehow becomes a nymphish muse to both.

Scarlett Johansson is merely repeating her temptress performance from Match Point. At least in that movie she had a somewhat more believable character (a struggling American actress who wants to "prove" herself to her middle class Colorado hometown by trying to make it in the tragicomic city of London.) In Vicky Christina Barcelona she just doesn't make sense. Her character probably looked great in the pitch, but Miss Johansson isn't given enough to work with to really convince the audience of her value or much of anything.

Mr. Allen doesn’t seem to know what to do with an attractive cast in a film about lust and passion...lost without his standard formula of the wacky, witty, sexless antics of urban intellectuals. Also, I don’t think Mr. Allen could make up his mind on whether the tone of the film should be earnest or self-mocking, so he settles for a disarming combination of the two.

As a friend pointed out, critics are calling this film “his best in decades” which means that he made good films once, then made a bunch of bad ones and then this….well, it’s better than the bad, but not quite good.


Kryles said...

I haven't seen any of this Spanish trilogy (for reasons listed below), but I did hear Vilmos Zsigmond describe Allen's directing style on Cassandra's Dream as entirely disinterested in the camera and even the placement of the actors (here he's gone the native route, using the Spanish DP Javier Aguirresarobe, who has shot for Amenabar, Almodovar, and the upcoming adaptation of The Road, which makes me giddy).

That comment, as well as an interview I read with Woody where he admitted Scoop was an inessential, playful, and unsuccessful film, seem confirmed by your approximation of VCB (I think I love and hate the title in equal measures). It seems carelessly constructed but, as always is the case, held up by the strengths of Allen's collaborators (with the obviously exception of the hack Johansson; though does Cruz speak in Spanish? She's unstoppable when that's the case).

Just another year where I imagine I'll prefer the other tireless elderly American filmmaker, Clint Eastwood.

ldbahr said...

Penelope Cruz is the best part of this movie...and I failed to mention in the review because it wouldn't really do her role justice. She is vibrant, beautiful and endearing in her madness, which was only aided by the frequent transitions from Spanish to English.

This role makes me understand why she's such a star in her country. She's finally found a part that takes her beyond her pin-up looks and utilizes her great talent.


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