Vicky Cristina Barcelona, 97 mins, rated tbc, opening in cinemas 26 December 2008.


[This is my review as published in the December 2008 issue of The NSW Law Society Journal]

Since the mid-1970s, Woody Allen has written and directed an average of one film a year. Now that’s prolific. In the 1970s he made at least two genuine classics: Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979). In the 1980s he made inventive films such Zelig (1983) and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). In the 1990s he made a wide variety of films, from Shadows and Fog (1992) and Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) through Mighty Aphrodite (1995) to Sweet and Lowdown (1999).  In the 21st century, most would agree he began to falter. But in 2004 he came up with the excellent Melinda and Melinda starring Australia’s Radha Mitchell.

Allen turns 73 this month, and he seems to be experiencing a renaissance now that he has discovered the joys of filmmaking in Europe. After years of rarely venturing outside his beloved Manhattan, he’s recently made three films set in London: Match Point (2005), Scoop (2006), and Cassandra’s Dream (2007). The results were mixed.

In his latest film Woody goes Latin (thanks to Peter Travers of Rolling Stone magazine for that mind-blowing phrase). Vicky Cristina Barcelona is about two beautiful American girls, Vicky and Cristina, on summer holidays in gorgeous, romantic Barcelona.

Cristina is played by Woody Allen’s current muse, Scarlett Johansson, who has starred in two of Allen’s last three films. She’s a free spirit with a well-developed sensual side, who’s at a loose end for the summer, having left a trail of lovers in her wake. Vicky is played by English theatre actress Rebecca Hall. Vicky is sensible, loyal and newly-engaged. She’s also a little bit uptight.

Vicky and Cristina soon meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a sexy, smouldering Spaniard, who’s also an intriguing artist. He makes them a most outrageously forward proposition: they should both come away with him for the weekend. “Life is short. Life is dull and full of pain,” he says “and this is a chance to do something special.” Despite Vicky’s resistance, soon both girls are caught up in Juan Antonio’s world of sensuous delights.

This set-up could almost have been taken from a Henry James novel: young innocent Americans abroad led astray my mysterious, attractive European. It is also familiar Allen territory. Over the years he has often made films about very privileged people in gorgeous surroundings, treating them almost like puppets so that he can explore their psychic angst. Some consider this to be a sign of misanthropy. Others just consider it a legitimate way in to explore contemporary personal issues. Perhaps it is both.

More troubling is his use of attractive young girls. Not content with the two young stars, Allen also introduces us to Penelope Cruz. She plays Maria Elena, the volatile ex-wife of Juan Antonio. Many critics have praised her portrayal of a very excitable, passionate and hot-blooded creature, who’s also a complete nutter. Encouraged by Allen to “be brave,” Cruz certainly doesn’t hold back.  But I found the character to be a real cliché: the hot-blooded Latin woman driven to madness by passion.

The central question Allen seems to be testing in Vicky Cristina Barcelona is perhaps this: can real love ever live up to idealised love? Allen’s answer would be “No”. Allen has Juan Antonio put it this way: “Maria Elena used to say that only unfulfilled love can be romantic.” This is a variation on Swiss writer Denis de Rougemont (1906-1985), whom Allen has quoted as saying “Once love is fulfilled, it is never romantic again.”

This is a fairly depressing thought in such a romantic setting. And that’s what often disturbs me about Woody Allen: he manages to be deeply cynical and manipulative, while seeming to be lighthearted, funny and wise. It’s usually easy enough to overlook this while you are laughing your head off.  Unfortunately, in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the laughs don’t come quite hard and fast enough.