A little more than halfway through Vicky Cristina Barcelona, three of the film’s characters — two women, one man — are picnicking. As in much of the film, the photography has the rich golden hue of a languid summer day. The women are dressed in light flimsy material that seems like it might be whipped away if the wind turns. The images communicate in a nearly tactile mode; Javier Aguirresrobe’s cinematography evokes the warming sensation of sunlight, and the actresses’ bodies make you think of the feeling of a hot breeze brushing softly against skin. You can almost smell the grass. It’s a lovely scene in an especially playful film crafted by a masterful filmmaker — an old man’s movie that invests in the spirit of reckless youth.
In some ways, you could say that Woody Allen’s been making old man’s movies for many years. He was in his 30s when he made Take the Money and Run, which was followed by a series of singularly literate knockabout comedies. At what other time in film history has erudition been so hilarious? (Maybe during the heyday of Groucho Marx, one of Allen’s idols.) But by the time he finished Annie Hall — that funny-sad catalog of life lived and lessons learned — Allen was into his 40s and showing the emotional wear and tear of every year. He followed it up with the strenuously dour Interiors (quoting Bergman, for God’s sake), and later the Fellini pastiche Stardust Memories, but he remained light on his feet. Still, he was never quite as appealing back then as when he worked in purely Woody Allen territory — it’s hard to imagine movies like Zelig, Hannah and her Sisters, and Radio Days springing from anyone else’s brain.
But as Allen moved into the 1990s his work started to turn ordinary. He reacted fairly quickly to the trend, as 1997’s Deconstructing Harry played like a deliberate effort to close the door on one aspect of his career — the scrupulously neurotic screen character he created over so many years and so many films. But I remember well being at some jam-packed screening or other in Manhattan in late 2005 and seeing the trailer for Match Point. It was full of the promise of youth, sex, and murder. And there was a collective gasp of recognition and astonishment when the “From Director Woody Allen” credit appeared on screen at the end. Match Point was a very good film in many ways — there was a slight awkwardness to the location, as if Allen were having difficulty mapping the swells of London to the swells of the Upper East Side he knows so well. But there was little doubt that the change of locale — plus the contribution of Scarlett Johansson, who had never before been quite so ridiculously sexy — had freshened the man up considerably.
And now, a mere three films later, he has a new triumph, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Johansson is back on board, but the film is shot in Barcelona (thanks in part to financing from two Spanish companies, Mediapro and Antena 3 Films), where the title characters — one flirtatious, open-minded, and single, the other reserved, careful, and engaged to be married — are vacationing. Vicky Cristina Barcelona feels a little more organic to its Spanish locations than Match Point did to London, partly because the scenery is so visually exciting (Gaudi is singled out for particular attention because, as the drily omnipresent voiceover informs us, he’s Vicky’s thesis topic) and partly because Allen is exploiting entertaining Spanish stereotypes — Javier Bardem is the smoldering artist Juan Antonio, and Penélope Cruz his tempestuous, spurned lover Maria Elena. The American protagonists are expressly written as tourists and are similarly pigeonholed. Cristina (Johansson) is the young, self-consciously free thinker who’s open to risk and new experience. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is the careerist embarking on one perfunctory adventure before settling into a suburban life with her terminally bland fiancé, Doug.
Allen pretends to be even-handed in his treatment of her character, but if his disdain for Doug isn’t telegraphed in the screenplay — he’s eyeing a house in Bedford Hills, which to Allen must be like shopping for a cemetery plot — it’s given away by the dorky, uptight performance he elicits from Chris Messina. Clearly, Allen’s sympathies lie with Juan Antonio, the artsy-genius type who can’t quite extricate his own existence from those of the women around him, especially his nutty but beautiful ex. Happily, Bardem is excellent in the role, exuding the kind of confidence and honesty and gentleness that makes you think these women might somehow be attracted to his spur-of-the-moment come-ons, and deftly avoiding the hint of narcissism or self-satisfaction that could derail the entire film. Bardem’s performance in No Country for Old Men worked so well because it was superficially awkward — he came on like a cross between Prince Valiant and The Terminator — and this one scores because Juan Antonio is such an assuredly straight shooter. When a homeless Maria Elena shows up on his doorstep, he’s consummately gentle and patient.
He’s great, but it’s the women who give the movie its life. There’s both a ferocity and a sadness to Cruz’s performance, partly because she’s playing a woman with experience enough to have already made many of the mistakes that the others must still look forward to, and it’s a kick to listen to her — apparently largely improvised — Spanish-language diatribes.
But what makes the film so sadly beautiful is Allen’s treatment of Vicky and Cristina, two lovely young women enjoying those formative years that are now such a distant memory for the man directing them. The attention he pays to Cristina is predictable — Johansson is beautiful and sexually open and has, arguably, given her best performances in Allen’s films. But he’s genuinely interested in Vicky, too. She’s the more outwardly serious of the two, but also the one most willing to settle for less, which is presumably what her well-off but proscribed, unimaginative boyfriend will deliver.
Why would you choose to be Vicky, the film seems to ask, if you could be Cristina instead? (Or, why move in with the bridge-and-tunnel crowd when you could be bedding the urban sophisticates?) But Allen’s approach to her is never cruel, dismissive, or mocking. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a film with a pretty big heart, and it feels for the compromises people make in response to the looming terror that is the enormity of the rest of their lives.