Off the Cuff: Vicky Christina Barcelona (2008)

October 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

So, I just watched Vicky Christina Barcelona, and it’s surprisingly good. Penelope Cruz is amazing in it and won a well deserved supporting actress Oscar for her portrayal as the batshit crazy Maria Elena; likewise, Javier Bardem exudes sensuality and an emotional intensity as Juan Antonio Gonzalo. Woody Allen weaves actually a quite complex narrative involving two American tourists – the Vicky and Christina of the title – who have very different ideas of love and whose philosophies are thereupon shaped by a chance encounter with the magnetic, sexy, Juan.

Like most of Woody Allen’s very recent films, this film is a discourse on a theme, and so most of the situations and twists of the story are contrived to explore that theme. Indeed, the narrator lays out on the table right at the beginning as he introduces both Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johansson). I admit that at first I found the narrator really quite irritating and intrusive, unnecessarily pointing out what’s going on onscreen when no commentary is required. Eventually I got over it, though.

Originally the film was written to be set in San Francisco but this was later changed to Barcelona in Spain, and, I have to say, the setting does the film a lot of favours. The heat, the music, the architecture, the language and everything about that city seems to form a cocoon around the story’s characters, providing a sizzling backdrop to their underlying emotions and desires. In another way it also helps to isolate and focus in on the raw feelings of love from any practical realities – incidentally, one of the chief dilemmas Vicky faces when comparing her soon-to-be husband with Juan.

Ultimately it’s a story well told, well written and well acted. While I have already singled out Bardem and Cruz as exceptional, Johansson and Hall are not bad at all. Unfortunately, though, when Johansson in particular is placed between Bardem and Cruz, it just becomes apparent that she’s nowhere near their league. Perhaps it’s an unfair comparison, but it’s a contrast that’s obviously there. This actually works to the film’s advantage, however, as when Cruz does come on to the scene around halfway through the movie she’s supposed to usurp the position of Johansson’s character.

In comparison, Hall spends most of the time moping about the screen after her little fling with Bardem’s character, Juan. Broadly it’s her character that most fills-in the traditional Woody Allen-type role of neurotic pessimist, and so she does get genuinely funny and intelligent dialogue to engage with.

Coming out of Vicky Christina Barcelona I could almost imagine it being told as one of those holiday romance anecdotes a close friend might disclose to you at the end of a quiet, relaxed dinner, or over a drink at a pub or coffee place. That’s not to say it’s tacky, but it’s got enough sauce and clever plot to keep you entertained for an hour-and-a-half. At the same time, while an interesting yarn, it’s not likely to stay with you for very long after.

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