Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Director: Woody Allen
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johansson, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Patricia Clarkson
Our introduction to Scarlett Johansson's character in Vicky Cristina Barcelona tells us that she's a film student who's just completed a twelve minute film about why love is hard to define. Most of Woody Allen's works are that film, not least this latest offering. On summer hols in Barcelona, we meet Vicky (Rebecca Hall) an earnest bluestocking responsibly engaged to a dependable (if lacklustre) partner, and Cristina (Johansson) a perky blonde libertine keen to discover herself through self-induced romantic torment. That they are stock characters of cinematic cliché isn't lost on a director of Allen's sophistication. Their personas are deliberately reduced to types, emphasised further by the hilarious commentary provided by the narrator's voiceover (which tells us, for example, that right-on Vicky is studying to complete 'a Masters in Catalan Identity'). Throw in another stock character, Latin lover Juan Antonio (Xavier Bardem), an intense artist (but of course!) and a seducer so candid and reasonable that it seems uncouth not to go to bed with the man. It is a conclusion reached sooner or later by both girls.
Vicky is seduced somewhat reluctantly (but in record time) while Cristina gives herself with extravagant abandon hoping to induce some tumult within. While Vicky subsequently resigns herself to humdrum married life, Juan Antonio proceeds to embark on a live-in relationship not just with Cristina but also his ex-wife – wild-haired, mad-eyed artist Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz). They settle into a threesome very much in the manner of Sartre, du Beauvoir and Bianca Bienenfeld. All of them find love but none of them keep it. Come to think of it, Woody Allen films aren't about how hard love is to define, they're about how hard it is to stomach.
There's something fitting about this film being shot in Spain. The golden architecture in the languid Barcelonan light suits this languidly paced venture. Allen's pace hasn't changed over the years; it's delicate and thoughtful, what modern cinema-goers impatiently refer to as 'slow'. It was unremarkable in his 70s heyday, when films were known to breathe and think, today it seems positively European. This is not a movie hurtling towards a conclusion; it meanders quietly in one direction and then the next, with characters spending at least as much time thinking as acting. Allen's got milder with age and there are moments when the film meanders a tad too long, verging on aimless loitering. It could be said that too many couples spoil the broth (along with the aforementioned, there's also a Patricia Clarkson subplot I shan't even bother trying to touch upon). While it's never dull, the film doesn't seem to commit to one idea, and aims to cover too much ground. This is, I suppose, the problem with trying to make cinema out of a philosophic debate, is romantic love sustainable? Still, the script is word-perfect, and Rebecca Hall makes an utterly charming new avatar of Diane Keaton, anxious, pensive, and with an eerily Allen-esque sense of delivery. The Latin lovers, Cruz and Bardem are fun to watch but comic-book incendiary, and clearly borrowed whole from Almodovar. Johansson is perfectly adequate, and given nothing complicated to do. Though she brings a certain freshness to the role of sexually precocious ingénue, the more I watch her movies, the more I suspect this eminent director may be thinking with his pants in casting her three times in a row.
Within the warren of the storyline, Allen explores his customary concerns, including the bohemian neuroses of a particular social milieu and the impossibility of love. It's all familiar terrain; Allen has built a career on the affectionate (and self-deprecating) lampooning of pseudo-intellectuals and artistic self-discovery. Love, he concludes, is ever unattainable. It's only sexy if it's complicated or unrequited. Once you're in a relationship, the grass is always greener in someone else's bedroom, and if you shun romance altogether, well, then you're miserable anyway. The happiest couple in this movie are the destructively passionate Bardem and Cruz, who simply cannot be together – I don't mean they make scenes in restaurants, I mean people get stabbed when these two argue. As Cruz explains about her relationship in what is essentially the moral of the story, "It'll always be romantic because it cannot be complete." This is the sorrow at the heart of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, it is this uncomfortable revelation about the nature of romantic love that lingers. It has been a running theme of Woody Allen's for some thirty years now (one wonders how it escaped the attention of Mia Farrow) and was articulated most memorably by Diane Keaton in Love & Death: "To love is to suffer. To avoid suffering, one must not love. But then, one suffers from not loving. Therefore, to love is to suffer; not to love is to suffer; to suffer is to suffer."