What happens in España …
Woody Allen and cast blend drama and comedy in Barcelona
Vicky and Cristina, a pair of young Americans in their mid-20s, are friends vacationing together in Spain for a couple of months. Neither entirely qualifies as a classic American innocent abroad, but both get variously entangled in impulsive romances with a boldly attentive Spaniard, an artist named Juan Antonio.
There’s bittersweet romantic comedy aplenty in that situation alone, and the dynamics of humor and drama alike get even more pungent when a fourth character—Juan Antonio’s volatile ex-wife Maria Elena—enters the mix.
Written and directed by Woody Allen, the film has little in the way of “typical” Woody clowning, and no character whatsoever played by the man himself. But Woody Allen the filmmaker is in top form here, and even with the manifest benefits of an excellent cast (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson as the title characters, Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz as the Spanish couple), it is Allen’s direction (of actors and script) that emerges as the key ingredient in the film’s lively and surprisingly moving mixture of comedy and drama.
Bardem and Cruz give the film’s most striking performances, but Hall and Johansson both make distinctive contributions to what is ultimately a charmingly ironic ensemble piece. Hall’s Vicky, ostensibly much more strait-laced and conservative than Johansson’s Cristina, gradually emerges as the most dramatically pivotal of the film’s characters, and yet there is no single protagonist or conventional rooting-interest in this tale. Indeed, a key part of the film’s power and appeal resides in its skillful distribution of sympathetic connection and wry irony among a half-dozen characters—the central foursome as well as two other Americans, the women’s Barcelona host (Patricia Clarkson) and Vicky’s stateside fiance (Chris Messina).
Vicky Cristina Barcelona has more comedy and a much friskier mood than the recent Match Point, but it ranks right up there with its predecessor as another high point in Allen’s continuing late phase as a movie auteur. Connoisseurs of Allen’s cinema might not want to put it on the same level with Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah and Her Sisters, but it does have cinematic and comic-dramatic virtues in common with all of those acknowledged Allen masterpieces.
The Barcelona settings and various allusions to European cinema are part of this film’s special flavor, and there is a sense in which Vicky Cristina Barcelona is Woody Allen’s earnest, wry-humored riff on assorted classics by European masters—Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, Eric Rohmer’s Pauline at the Beach and François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim, in particular.
The Truffaut film is “quoted” in the film in a variety of ways, and most crucially via the deadpan voice-over narration (read here not by Allen, but by Christopher Evan Welch) that brings yet another element of complex perspective to the story’s multiple love triangles.