I felt, after seeing Woody Allen's latest, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the way I do after I've been to an excellent tapas restaurant; I'd been presented with a series of small moments of flavor and texture and presentation, some more pleasant than others, and while the overall experience didn't add up to a full meal, it was still a sincere pleasure. Allen's been globetrotting lately -- although you can suggest that's been motivated less by some muse of artistic inspiration than by the equally beguiling, if less dignified, seductress of international financing. After several films set in London, Allen's now in Barcelona, Spain, as recently-graduated friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are taking some time to see the world before going back to America and futures as bright and unfixed as a sunlit fogbank.
Staying with family friends Mark and Judy Nash (Kevin Dunn and Patricia Clarkson), Vicky and Cristina take in the sights and experiences of Barcelona. Cristina's able to lose herself in the moment; for Vicky, each summer day's tempered by the certainty that summer will soon end. But one night after an art gallery showing, at an appropriately bohemian venue, Vicky and Cristina are approached by the painter whose work they've just seen, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who proposes they join him as he flies to a small town so they might spend the weekend making love. Vicky's appalled; Cristina's intrigued; Juan Antonio is a laid-back seducer with a ready counter-argument to every objection: "Life is long; life is dull; life is full of pain." Why not have a little fun? It's not enough to talk the girls into agreeing to go to bed with him, but it is enough to get them on-board the plane. ... Like many of Allen's films, a narrator (Christopher Evan Welch) takes us through the story, smoothly guiding us from scene to scene as the splendor of Spain is unfolded before us. As some have already noted, this is a device on loan from Truffaut, so that the film might get past the nuts and bolts of story mechanics and instead skip from moment to moment. Whether this is considered skillful and elegant or clumsy and lazy will depend on your temperament; there have been worse devices in Allen's recent films. (At the end of Match Point, I was literally throwing my hands up at the screen, realizing that in Woody Allen's world, British cops don't do autopsies on, or read the diaries of, women who've died in mysterious circumstances.)
Vicky Cristina Barcelona isn't a murky murder mystery, though; it's a bright, cool comedy of manners and mores, as refreshing and subtly intoxicating as a tall drink of sangria. On their trip with Juan Antonio, Cristina falls ill; Vicky falls ... into bed. She's engaged to a man back home, but, there it is -- or rather, there it was; Cristina's dalliance becomes something she keeps at the back of her mind with a mix of regret and longing. Back in Barcelona, Juan Antonio and Cristina become lovers, a situation complicated by the arrival of his ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz). Juan Antonio and Maria Elena have the crazed, nervous energy of feral animals; when they feud, you can't tell if the next step will lead to knives or kisses.
Allen's fond of working with large ensembles -- you get the sense it spares him the task of connecting too closely with any one actor -- and he has a terrific one here. Hall is hesitant but not shut off, thoughtful and yet also full of feelings. Johansson glides along embodying Cristina's coltish enthusiasm; she conveys both bright, joyous optimism as well as the simple fact that bright outlook's never truly been tested. Bardem captures the swagger of a born seducer; Juan Antonio has both the dancing grace of the matador and the sleepy-eyed power of the bull. And Cruz's Maria Elena is a scene-stealing force of nature, a slave to her passions, for better and for much worse. When Bardem and Cruz feud -- slipping into Spanish, with Cristina on the outside of their tempests -- it's real and raw and funny; we may not know what, precisely they're saying, but we get the point. It's been suggested that Bardem and Cruz's scenes feel like they're on loan from a Pedro Almodovar film, and while that's not entirely true, it does come close to explaining the loose, crazy, sexy and warm vibe Vicky Cristina Barcelona has when Cruz is on screen; when we're told that Juan Antonio, Maria Elena and Cristina embark on a three-sided relationship, it makes something like sense in the light of what we've seen.
Much has been made of Cruz and Johansson's kiss in the film, but if you're going to Vicky Cristina Barcelona hoping for some hot girl-on-girl action starring two internationally known starlets you're a) going to be disappointed and b) an idiot. For Allen, sex has never been about the swift entangling of limbs or tongues, but instead the slow unraveling of principles and promises; there's more passion in one shot of Vicky's exciting, terrifying realization that she can't stop thinking about Juan Antonio than in the blink-and-you'll miss it smooch between Cruz and Johansson. If any force runs under Vicky Cristina Barcelona, it's not the urge of sex but the more primal power of creation; Juan Antonio may fight with Maria Elena, but she compels him to paint his best work; Cristina may feel young and unformed around Juan Antonio and Maria Elena (and she is), but she discovers photography and her own eye through their encouragement. And even Vicky, saddled with a khaki-wearing drone of a fiancée (Chris Messina, graceful in a thankless role), has to ask what kind of life she truly wants to make for herself, and what that will take. And even if you reject Vicky Cristina Barcelona as yet another Allen exploration of the personal problems of handsome wealthy people, you may find yourself, nonetheless, being seduced by the bright sunlight shimmering around Barcelona's splendor in the daytime and the warm candlelit moments of sipped wine and shared intimacy at night. Vicky Cristina Barcelona isn't one of Allen's finest films, but there's something warm and charming and (one might even dare say) optimistic about it, as if Allen found the change in venue as exciting and challenging as his characters do.