Perhaps only in Cannes would hundreds of people crush into lines, beg for tickets, offer to rent various body parts, for the chance to see the new Woody Allen film. The 72-year-old writer-director is long past his renown as America's wryest, most prolific auteur, let alone the King of Anarchy title he achieved with his early, funny movies; that Allen keeps making films is deemed by most of his compatriots an act of will, almost defiance, by a man whose genius evaporated some time in the late '80s.
He still has loyal admirers in Europe, though, as was proved by the urgent mob waiting to see Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and by the warm applause when it ended. After the screening we ran into one of his champions: Michel Ciment, the doyen of French critics. "You still go to Woody Allen films?" asked Michel in mock or mocking surprise. He was just setting us up for a pronouncement: that whatever Allen's current reputation, years from now people will take a retrospective look at the 40 some films he's made and proclaim him as part of a holy trinity of movie comedy with Ernst Lubitsch and Billy Wilder.
Well, maybe not in that empyrean, but arguably in the ballpark. It's hard not to feel warmly toward Allen after VCB, his first vital movie since Match Point three years ago (we quickly throw the veil of oblivion over Scoop and Cassandra's Dream), and maybe his most engaging large-scale effort since, let's say, Crimes and Misdemeanors nearly 20 years ago. It doesn't percolate with the inventive comic situations or quotable one-liners of the films that established his meta-movie credentials, Annie Hall and Manhattan; but, like them, this one is about people whose jobs are incidental to their real vocations of falling in love and messing things up. With seven major characters, five of whom have affairs during one Spanish summer, VCB is a God's-eye view of the thesis that "only unfulfilled love can be romantic."
The title characters are two American women and a one very romantic city. Vicky (English stage actress Rebecca Hall, who was the beguiling pawn of two magicians in The Prestige) wrote her master's in Catalan Identity. Before marrying businessman Doug (Chris Messina), she has come to Barcelona to spend July and August with a welcoming relative, Judy (Patricia Clarkson), and Judy's husband Mark (Kevin Dunn). Vicky has brought along her friend Cristina (current Woody muse Scarlett Johansson), who is restless emotionally and artistically. She has the impulse to be creative she starred in and directed a 12min. film but not, at least so far as she can locate it, the talent.
Vicky is immediately attracted to a local painter, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem, this year's Oscar winner for No Country for Old Men). He is one of those artists, found mostly in fiction (and in the fantasies of artists), whose true vocation is mixing up the hearts of the many women who fall into his bed. Their avid emotions are the canvas on which he splashes the bright strokes of his evanescent ardor. Cristina, ready for an adventure, lures the painter to her and Vicky's table, and Juan Antonio, ever the gracious roue, proposes that the Americans accompany him to the town of Oviedo. "We'll eat well, we'll drink good wine, we will make love." "Who will make love?" asks Vicky with a schoolmarm's moral skepticism. "Hopefully, the three of us," he purrs.
In Oviedo, Juan Antonio briskly, suavely, steers Cristina to his hotel room. He hardly needs to use all his seductive talents; Cristina is eager for a night with a Latin lover. ("If you don't start undressing me soon," she tells him, "this is going to turn into a panel discussion.") But a bout of stomach poisoning breaks Cristina's mood, and she must convalesce the rest of the weekend. That leaves Juan Antonio with the disapproving, and spoken-for, Vicky. She is one of those females, rife in the Allen canon, whose insecurity is expressed as hostility to men; she castrates, or at least circumcises, them with every cutting word. And Hall, with her flawless American accent, is equally persuasive at inhabiting, not just miming, the stammering tenseness of the traditional Allen heroine.
No less than Henry James, Allen is judgmental of Americans abroad they betray a sexual naivete when exposed to a society so much more practiced in the art of gracious loving. And no less than Vicky and Cristina, Allen is almost star struck by the Spaniards, and the Mediterranean ease in forming, then releasing, sexual liaisons. The hallmark of his characters is the fumbling confession of furtive love; but in this idealized Catalonia, where nothing romantic is forbidden, everything is beautiful, as natural as breathing in sync with the woman who has fallen asleep in your arms.
Well, why shouldn't Allen have a crush on Juan Antonio? For one thing, he dreamed the character up; for another, Bardem doesn't have to work hard to radiate the sensitive machismo of a man who doesn't use women so much as he allows them to briefly fulfill their dreams in him. Visually, too, the movie is in love with Barcelona, its gnarled Gaudi buildings, and with the countryside of Ovieto, a hundred shades of glorious earth tones. (The cinematographer is Javier Aguirresarobe, who has shot films directed by Pedro Almodovar, Victor Erice and Alejandro Amendabar.) It is in Ovieto that Vicky meets Juan Antonio's ancient father, who writes beautiful poetry but refuses to publish it, believing that a world that has not learned how to love does not deserve his art.
We've saved the most vibrant character for last: Maria Elena, which Penelope Cruz turns into one of her boldest, fullest characters. A painter so sexy that Juan Antonio's father still has erotic dreams of her, Maria Elena had been Juan Antonio's muse, competitor and wife; their turbulent marriage ended when she tried to kill him. Of course she shows up, once her ex has set up house with Cristina, allowing Allen to run further amorous permutations. A darkroom kiss between Cruz and Johansson is probably Allen's most direct expression of romantic-sexual connection.
Whenever Bardem or Cruz are on screen, VCB finds its heart. It sees them as fully in tune with their feelings: totally willing, and why not?, to act on impulses they've learned to trust. The Americans are children by comparison, a little stiff, so conditioned to overanalyzing every attraction that they would lose the moment if only there weren't a Don Juan Antonio to send seismic shivers up their consciences.
The movie is narrated in an American voice (not Allen's) that is pitched slightly above all the characters. The voice knows Vicky and Cristina best, but you know it wants to live with, possibly bed down with, cosmopolitan Juan Antonio and crazy Maria Elena.
The film's narrative voice doesn't take any of these liaisons too seriously. That is the movie's sunny strength and its ultimate limitation since life is not perhaps simply a series of bed partners from whom we discover that the greatest wisdom is realizing we always have more to learn from others, and about ourselves. But Vicky Cristina Barcelona is so engaging so much of the time that we can entertain Allen's proposition. It's certainly evidence that a summer in Spain can do wonders for a writer-director who may not have outlived his prime.