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Friday, June 26, 2009
'Vicky Cristina Barcelona'
Of course, nothing to do with Woody
Director Woody Allen was interviewed on the radio program Fresh Air (American National Public Radio) the other day, and repeatedly insisted that, whatever his fans may think, the characters in his films bear no resemblance whatsoever to the real him. His own marriage to a woman 34 years his junior, or his past alleged midlife relationship with a teenager, for example, are entirely coincidental to the fact that so many of his films deal with that older man wins younger woman theme. Allen's forthcoming release, "Whatever Works," has 61-year-old Larry David falling for 21-year-old Evan Rachel Wood.
Allen seems to deny the obvious — that an artist's life necessarily spills onto the page (as does a critic's), consciously or unconsciously, even if it's in such simple ways as choice of subject or where to focus one's attention. The Fresh Air interview concluded with a lengthy quote from one of Allen's characters — comedy writer Isaac Davis in "Manhattan" — that sounded almost verbatim to comments Allen was making as the "real Woody" during the interview. This leaves the impression that Allen is either oblivious or coy when it comes to acknowledging that his scripts are indeed full of his obsessions, joys, hang-ups and concerns.
Just look at "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," which Allen scripted as well as directed. It's a film in Allen's recent style ("Match Point," "Cassandra's Dream") where the classic and constant Woody Allen character — kvetching, neurotic New York City Jewish intellectual who gets the girl — is left out of the script for a change. Allen is better these days when he's moving outside his comfort zone, and that's certainly true here, yet even without Woody in his usual role — or an Allen surrogate like Will Ferrell or Jason Biggs — his personality comes seeping through every frame.
Most directors, especially those in France — where Allen is still much loved — would kill for such praise; putting a personal stamp on every project is the very essence of the cinema d'auteur, and yet Allen runs from such a reading of his work. No doubt he's tired of getting bashed for having married his ex-wife's adopted daughter, Soon Yi Previn, but his denial of a personal aspect to his art seems overly defensive. As surely as Wong Kar Wai is identified with unrequited love and melancholy, or Judd Apatow is with male inadequacy and sexual frustration, clearly Allen is a man who remains fascinated by the allure and unknowability of young women, and the folly of men who are drawn to it.
"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" features two attractive young 20-something Americans, played by Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson, just out of college and on a vacation in Barcelona. It's the sort of slight, summer-holiday romance with emotional complications that would make a good Eric Rohmer film, though Allen employs a voice-of-God narration in the film that states his themes far more explicitly than Rohmer ever would. Rohmer is a master of intimacy, of getting you to look closely at his characters, to examine the space between what they say they want and what they end up doing. Allen takes a sardonic, omniscient view of his characters; it's an approach that could have been quite clinical were it not for the warm, engaging performances by the entire cast.
Vicky and Cristina (played by Hall and Johansson respectively), the narrator tells us, are best friends but polar opposites when it comes to love. Vicky "had no tolerance for pain and no lust for combat. She was grounded and realistic. Her requirements in a man were seriousness and stability." Cristina, on the other hand, "reluctantly accepted suffering as an inevitable component of deep passion, and was resigned to putting her feelings at risk." Upon arriving in Barcelona, the duo are promptly put to the test by Latin lothario Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem, sporting a far better haircut than in "No Country For Old Men".)
A successful and recently divorced artist, Juan Antonio invites both women to spend a weekend with him in Oviedo where, he boldly proposes, "we'll drink wine, make love." Vicky goes off at him, but he closes his pitch by saying: "Life is short, life is dull, life is full of pain. This is a chance for something different." (A line so very close to Allen's own oft-stated philosophy of life.) Cristina, biting her thumb, consents, which only makes Vicky more incensed. Sensibly engaged to a New York stockbroker and middle-class values, Vicky sees no merit in flings; Cristina, hell-bent on defying convention, is open to adventure for its own sake. As she frankly admits, "I don't know what I want, I only know what I don't want."
She gets more than she bargained for — as does Vicky — when in the midst of a blissful affair with Juan Antonio, his mercurial ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) shows up. This is a woman who is brimming with irresistible charisma at her best (she even seduces Cristina), but homicidal/suicidal at her worst; she has embraced a surrender to "deep passion" on a level Cristina can barely imagine.
Cruz won an Oscar for this role, and it's to her credit that she can take that cliche of cliches — the hot-blooded crazy-tempered Latina lover — and still bowl you over with it. The film comes alive when she enters the picture — wittier, sexier, wilder — and she's the perfect foil for Johansson's low-key style. It's Hall, though, who in her last moment in the film, seals it all with one look, where finally that Rohmer-ian distance between words and feelings surges up and washes all else away.
"Vicky Cristina Barcelona" is a light comedy on one level, but it's also a case study of passion, of amour fou. It proposes, rather directly, that it's ultimately better to confront your desires than to repress them, and that one's moral code isn't worth jack when confronted by the demands of desire and the heart. The prim moralist — as Casanova clearly knew — will succumb all the more wantonly once that initial barrier has been breached, while the free-spirited Bohemian may be surprised to find a certain need for security and faithfulness locked away under the anything-goes attitude. What we want will ultimately trump any sense of what we think we should do. Tell me that has nothing to do with Woody.
Perhaps the director, next time he's interviewed, should wield the words of Casanova himself: "I have delighted in going astray, and I have constantly lived in error. My follies. . . . You will see that I laugh at them, and if you are kind, you will laugh at them with me."