Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Review: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

I instantly loathed Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Sure, it showcased beautiful people in a beautiful city, beautifully photographed. But it seemed unbelievably facile. For starters, it is possessed of one of the worst, no, scratch that, the absolute worst voiceover of all time. The bland, uninteresting voiceover works like captions in pre-modern comics: it describes the things that you can see happening on the screen. The voiceover tells us that our two heroines are arriving at the hotel and checking into a different room than that of their Spanish suitor...and we see them arrive at the hotel and check into separate rooms. Mind-blowing. Furthermore, the voiceover also tells us about the characteristics and emotions of the two women, which is one of the most bizarre developments in recent filmmaking: everyone knows that Woody Allen's characters display their emotions via copious buckets of confessional dialouge. A voiceover, in lieu of this process, just felt wrong.

Of course, I reconsidered this stance when Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) started explaining their feelings via dialogue. As Johansson has demonstrated several times, and as Hall demonstrated throughout this film, neither of them can handle Allen's hyper-literate dialogue. The worst voiceover of all-time suddenly seemed sophisticated and nuanced, compared to Hall and Johansson's clumsy butcherings of the English language.

But a number of things happened to defuse my loathing and ultimately transform it into pleasure. Most importantly, the newly-minted international superstar Javier Bardem arrived. Just as in No Country for Old Men, Bardem is palpably charismatic, although this time out he kills considerably fewer people. He plays Juan Antonio, a Spanish painter interested in both Vicky and Cristina. Vicky is an engaged Type A personality who is certainly not his type; Cristina is an aimless psuedo-artist who certainly is. And yet both of them are interested enough in Juan Antonio to travel with him to Oviedo to look at some sculpture.

The person on the right speaks demonstrably better English than the two on the left.

Beyond the sheer magnificence of Bardem, this film's greatest strength is its deceptive complexity. The film's trailer and opening quarter make it appear hopelessly schematic: Cristina is an artistic free spirit, Vicky is hard-nosed realist, Juan Antonio is a suave lady killer, Juan Antonio's crazy ex-wife (Penelope Cruz) is a violent wacko, and Vicky's fiance is a boring Wall Street douche bag. But after allowing us all of these illusions, Allen slowly twists them. The film's only truly sympathetic character is the fiance, who turns out to be a genuinely nice guy with a romantic streak. Cruz is in fact a better artist than Juan Antonio, and is a more efficient ladykiller. Juan Antonio's ladykilling is not so much calculated as hopelessly romantic. And most importantly, both Vicky and Cristina are revealed to be characters of problematic depth, with complex and contradictory desires. Luckily for us, they have relatively few scenes together after the film's opening moments; for some reason, when they're separate, they seem to handle the dialogue much better. This may be because they aren't stumbling over each other's incompetence, or possibly because Bardem, Cruz, and the girls' mentor Patricia Clarkson are such masters that I failed to notice their incompetence.

You could say that almost any Woody Allen movie is about adultery, and you'd usually be right. But what his movies are really about is the way that desire overcomes the channels it's supposed to run through, and finds new and unexpected ways to express itself. Vicky Cristina Barcelona explores a number of the different ways desire can flow. It problematizes all of them and valorizes none of them, but it also finds room to praise love in all its forms. It may not be Hannah and Her Sisters, but it's as good as we're likely to get from latter-day Allen. I, for one, am grateful.


Dan said...

"As good as we're likely to get from latter-day Allen" - well said. I too had major problems with the voice-over but at one point it clicked and seemed to have a novelistic quality. So why isn't Crimes And Misdemeanors listed on your best since Hannah checklist?

Graham said...

Hey Dan, the poll is actually post-Husbands and Wives, not post Hannah. I consider Husbands and Wives to be his last consensus great movie. I actually consider Deconstructing Harry to be his last great movie, but I know that's not a universally shared view.

Dan said...

D'oh! My dyslexic eyes just saw H and made that mistake. Funnily enough I too consider Deconstructing Harry to be the last great WA movie but yeah, I've heard many folks say they hated it so...

Graham said...

so...they're wrong!