If only all filmmakers could be as cheerfully frank about their opportunism. Asked in Cannes why he shot his new film in Barcelona, Woody Allen admitted that the city had offered him funding; feeling it would be a nice place to spend a summer, he wrote a script to fit.
The city elders can’t say they didn’t get their money’s worth. The film offers a resounding endorsement of Barcelona’s attractions: go there, it promises, and you’ll enjoy great food and wine, see spectacular Gaudí architecture, Find Yourself, and get laid. The setting happens to be Barcelona, but Allen might just as easily have made the film in Paris, Venice, or any city where local actors can be depended on to play it sexy-volatile.
This brittle moral comedy is a knowingly transparent revamp of the age-old Americans-in-Europe story, as perfected by Henry James and Edith Wharton, with a creakily pedantic voiceover narration (read by Christopher Evan Welch) providing the appropriate bookish tone. The heroines are Vicky (Rebecca Hall), a cerebral, uptight graduate student, and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), sensual and up for anything. Both are approached one night by smoldering artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who suggests an impromptu weekend away and sex “à trois,” or just “à deux” if need be. While Vicky balks, Cristina gives a flirtatiously tentative green light. Tart if predictable irony follows: a stomach bug lays Cristina low, and Juan Antonio lays Vicky. Later, Cristina gets her turn with Juan Antonio, at which point his ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz) comes into the picture. Cristina and the Spanish couple become a bohemian threesome, and Johansson and Cruz gamely provide Allen with his money shot, a sapphic snog in the red light of a darkroom.
As in all his recent films, Allen seems uninterested in pushing his material beyond impersonally generic, or even in thinking things through. Is it possible that Vicky, a specialist in Catalan cultural identity, hasn’t yet gotten around to learning Spanish? Maybe, but still… Not that cultural identity troubles Allen much. The film’s feel for Spain and Catalonia is on the level of a Fodor’s guide of some 40 years’ vintage: the Americans are forever visiting “antique and charming” parks or discovering “delightful” sweetshops and bakeries. DP Javier Aguirresarobe makes locations and actors alike charming and delightful, bathing everything in a handsome sun-glazed glow.
We do at least see glimmers of Allen’s old confidence. There’s a lovely play of glances when Cristina first hears rumors that Juan Antonio is bad news, and it’s clear that she’s instantly hooked; the payoff is a shot of Bardem looking preposterously moody and magnificent. There’s even the odd near-vintage one-liner: “If you don’t start undressing me soon,” Cristina warns her lover, “this is going to turn into a panel discussion.”
The cast pretty much looks after itself. Bardem and Cruz are required to send themselves up as red-hot export chili peppers, and oblige wholeheartedly; even Cruz’s luxurious L’Oréal tresses appear to be parodying themselves. The real star, however, is Rebecca Hall, who has a magnificently prickly scene resisting Bardem’s advances, in the latest instance of a performer uncannily taking on Woody Allen’s own diction (does he ask them to, or do actors just absorb his manner virally?).
Vicky Cristina Barcelona offers no surprises but a few pleasures to tickle an audience that fancies itself tastefully cosmopolitan. The consensus response in Cannes was that the film saw Allen recapturing some of the old sparkle. To an extent it does, if only the sparkle of a mid-price Cava. Compared to the stale draught bitter of his London-set Cassandra’s Dream, that’s something.