Monday, August 18, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is that film that falls under the paradoxical heading of being a good, largely well-crafted concoction that is nevertheless remarkably frustrating. It has so much potential, such unquestionable promise, and its standing as a creation by Woody Allen seems to be equal parts blessing and curse, that it can arguably be considered to encapsulate everything you adore and abhor about a certain auteur despite coming away from the experience mostly satisfied. It's that rarest of movies—it's primordially lovable, winning you over while simultaneously disappointing you; most saddening, Vicky Cristina Barcelona illustrates the worst instincts of its creator at the expense of his best instincts. Perhaps more bluntly, it's one of those films that seems to have a film within it that would probably be both different from and most likely better than the final product.

Plainly, the Brechtian narration put me off; eventually I came to loathe it. Allen trudges over the same terrain as he has seemingly since he first lensed a movie. Pretentious pseudo-intellectuals are annoying, aggravating and awfully phony. As agreeable as that assessment may be, at a certain point once you have expounded on it for so long, the argument almost succumbs from reverse identity complex, like the boorish lout who bitterly complains about there being nothing on the wasteland known as television while he numbingly, repetitively flips the channels. Christopher Evan Welch's snidely haughty narration is pure, unmitigated Allen; at this point Allen aficionados know the archetypes and the characterizations so well that the moment they show up there is something of a “here we go again” vibe. Allen's pictures are apparently destined to forever have that je ne sais quoi about them derived from the separate but recurring components that are his signature. Unfortunately, Allen, who could have easily killed off the narration after the first ten minutes, relies on it for the entirety of the picture. It's an entirely unnecessary crutch, and one that will feed certain Allen critics some fresh ammunition: it connotes a certain lack of faith in his visual talents, which have been quite considerable since his early days as a director, and it never contributes anything that Allen's compositions and cuts between scenes did not already. To take a radical but important example, late in the picture Allen comically cuts to a screaming couple in the street, a couple whose temperament has been repeatedly noted to be ill and destructive, their fate together an unhappy one. Rather than allow the hilarious but gently melancholic cut to work its full magic on the audience—comedy at its best and most successful flourishes because it has permitted the viewer to work it out and do the heavy lifting of immediately piecing the joke's resonance within the grander framework of the story—Allen partially squashes his own gorgeous portrait with that overwhelming and irksomely pestilential narration, describing the moment. It's a sorrowful sight, witnessing a filmmaker whose control of the medium seems to be underestimated by no one more than himself.

Early on, Vicky Cristina Barcelona truly does recall the “early funny ones” of Allen's, perhaps most notably Manhattan, with Barcelona barely substituting. Whereas Allen's own, tonally wondrous introduction in that film fit his picture like a glove and established the man's undying love for the city serving as a sparkling black-and-white dream world backdrop for the dramas and comedies of the relationships detailed therein, little love for Barcelona is evident beyond the borderline plebeian American tourist cliché embodied by the two titular vacationing young women. However, despite the shortcomings, a scene in which a suave, straightforwardly sensuous Spanish painter named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem, putting a faintly sardonic spin on his tortured artist portrayals in Before Night Falls and The Sea Inside, making you forget he ever carried around a cattle gun in No Country for Old Men) approaches Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) as they listlessly drink wine caresses your face like a gust of Mediterranean wind. Allen seems to have found himself again after trying to meld the Bergman with the Hitchcock with the serious half of Crimes and Misdemeanors in Match Point, making one inconsequential stick of cotton candy (Scoop) and a Picasso “blue period” special (Cassandra's Dream) afterwards.

What is most regrettable, then, is that it's in re-finding himself that Allen ostensibly loses something here. Rebecca Hall is quite terrific as Vicky, the most clearly archetypal role in the Allen gallery, the “stable,” secure young American woman, and Johansson acquits herself as the flaky, “terminally dissatisfied” (to borrow a descriptive term from another character) wanderer--she gives the performance Allen desires from her--but as well-etched (if extraordinarily familiar) figures as they are, it's actually the more exotically unfamiliar creations in Allen's newest that attract the greatest degree of interest. Bardem's Juan is a seducer but with self-imposed limits; he is completely without artifice when he tells the two upon meeting them that he would love to take them to Oviedo for the weekend, enjoying delicious wine, exquisite sculptures and the lustful opportunity to “make love.” He is particularly interested in a possible menage a trois, which repulses Vicky, who is engaged to an American named Doug (Chris Messina). Doug may be gifted by Allen with sensing the certain absurdities of Cristina's personality and very being, but he's a wretchedly shallow creature, motivated to undertake adventures like wedding in Barcelona so he can tell his friends about it so they can be impressed; perhaps he and Vicky can tell their children about it as well, he says.

The first act is peppered with with scenes of affection, molded with vest and wit. Allen at seventy-two is more dangerous than ten Judd Apatows—probably because Allen's relation to humanity is still strong and mainly accurate; a certain early twist involving Vicky, Cristina and Juan should have been seen a mile away but because Allen grounds the decisions made by the trio in the always adumbral roads of the human heart, which as every Allen expert knows, wants what it wants. Gradually, though, the momentum of the picture dies down, and narrative seems to go slack. And that is when Allen unveils Maria Elena, the neurotic ex-wife of Juan's, given whirring, authentic and earthy immediacy by Penelope Cruz.

Cruz's presence as Maria Elena is given an anticipatory treatment similar to Orson Welles's Harry Lime in The Third Man. Characters speak of her, almost reverently, and finally she appears. When we first see her she is deceptively broken, apparently having just attempted to end her life. Allen allows her to be a three-dimensional being. Like Meryl Streep's Jill Davis in Manhattan, another feisty ex-wife to an artist on whom she has left an indelible influence, Cruz's Maria is bossy and probably justifiably a bit crazed. Unlike Jill, however, Maria still passionately loves Juan and he loves her, though they know their relationship is doomed. Described as a paradox by Juan, theirs is a match that is both ideal in the abstract and wholly wrong in practice. Cruz's performance is like a lit fuse attached to the film's stick of dynamite, and it's her turn that summons the most humor and pathos, a realization that hits you the hardest in her final powerful scene.

Though she is his newest regular muse, Allen may have--subconsciously or not--at best mixed feelings about Scarlett Johansson. In Match Point she was a failing actress, incapable of following through with her goals. In Scoop she was something of a female stand-in for him. Vicky Cristina Barcelona finds her embodying an inexpressive, untalented artist who describes herself as lacking in talent. Is Allen making a sly suggestion about Johansson that possibly goes over her head? Is it sexism, a study of sexism or the crass stereotyping of the blonde beauty as a worthless but shiny ornament?

Allen films, perhaps especially his relationship comedies, inevitably travel down such beaten paths by now, that describing their plots is less interesting than discussing some of the subtext. A dining scene involving two couples allows the audience to hear the words spoken by one of the foursome, “There's this joke...” Allen lets music play over the rest. The idea of humor is almost enough by itself now. There are still some one-liners, but they are less stale and transparently Allen prerequisites and more organically birthed from the flow of conversations. Maria's commentary about the Chinese language had the audience roaring with laughter. Allen seems to have found, once again, that people are funny not primarily because of what they say but rather how they say it, who they are saying it to and why, and where all of that comes from.

What to make of Allen pointing to Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt? Allen's “thrillers,” whether comedic (Manhattan Murder Mystery) or straight (Match Point), have owed pieces and perhaps swathes from the master of suspense. Deeper still, is Allen making a comment pertaining to the supremacy of the auteur as, in Bushian terms, “decider,” of the merit of his own work? It became concretely, almost universally believed that Hitchcock reportedly considered the Joseph Cotten-starrer to be his best film, or at least his personal favorite. (This mythically recurrent "fact" would be contradicted in the book written about the master of suspense by Francois Truffaut.) Allen's own idiosyncratic positions on his own work have frustrated and amused fans and followers; his willingness to disregard the claims of critics pining for a return to Annie Hall almost legendary.

Nevertheless, Allen can generally consider Vicky Cristina Barcelona a success, but oddly enough it's most effective when it averts its gaze from the truly joyless American, Allenesque archetypes and finds visceral pleasure in the fireworks set off by the Juan and Maria pairing given life by the voluptuous Spanish Cruz and Bardem. This may indeed be the breakthrough Allen acolytes have been desiring for so long, but it will have to be retroactively labeled as such in the wake of his future, unforeseen canon: the final frontier for Allen, it seems, may not have much to do with the same old snobbish pseudo-intellectuals who so routinely populate his work but rather the beings that seem more like him, the impassioned but tortured artist, whose scales and measures of triumph and failure are more reasonably set to the corresponding standards imposed by his or herself? Bullets Over Broadway was a tautly calibrated statement about the perils of losing that uncompromising, artistic stubbornness. Allen's own life and career point to this, and with this film he seems to be better than halfway home. That may be an incensing reality in some ways, but it's more progress than most make. Allen, I'm sure, isn't satisfied. He shouldn't be—it would go against his nature—but he has more to hang his proverbial hat on to than nearly all of his peers. One can hope next time he allows himself to get out of his own way. He's a treasure, and he should recognize that without embarrassment or modesty, false or otherwise.


Alison Flynn said...

I haven't seen this yet, so I just read the first paragraph or so. Looking forward to reading the rest after I see it.

So, are you not a fan of Brecht? Or do you just feel that the style doesn't work for this movie. Just curious. :)

Alexander Coleman said...

Oh, I like Brecht. And I often enjoy seeing directors utilize a methodology that recalls him. Sidney Lumet with Dog Day Afternoon and Find Me Guilty is, I think, an excellent example of a filmmaker making Brechtian works and succeeding wonderfully.

Alison Flynn said...

Leave it to Sidney Lumet to do it right...

Alexander Coleman said...

Naturally. :)

I think the narration in Vicky Cristina Barcelona should have been like Manhattan's if Allen wanted it at all. After the first few scenes, it contributes nothing to the film and is just a distraction.

nick plowman said...

I cannot wait to see this, and read what I am sure is a great review :)

Sam Juliano said...

Beautiful review, and in large measure aresult of what Alexander admits half-way through--"it is far less interesting to recap the plot, rather than discussing the subtext." Indeed, and your analysis of that subject, is as always rich, perceptive and rooted in cinematic comparisons and apt use of the vernacular.
I was also turned off by that Brechtian narration, but the movie had more issues than that, not the least of which was a slight and uninteresting screenplay that was not remotely saved by sensuous filmaking that has been roundly trumped by a number of recent European films, not to mention works like ENCHANTED APRIL, BELLE EPOQUE, BABETTE'S FEAST and MY FATHER'S GLORY and MY MOTHER'S CASTLE.
I like what you say there about Allen's use of Scarlet as well. There isn't a professional review out there that has examined the film in the way you have here. I need to still write my own review, but I can see my work is cut out for me. Congratulations.

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Nick. I really look forward to your comments after you see the film and check out the review. :)

Thanks for the very kind words, Sam. Honored about the comment regarding my review...

Pat said...

This is a great review. I compeletly concur abbout the "irksomely pestilential" (ha!) narration, which was the weakest part of the film for me.

My biggest problems with Allen's recent films is that he writes younger characters as if it's still 1978. He's completely out of touch with how contemporary young adults think and behave. (I'm thinking of the scene in "VCB" where one of Doug's buddies - who looks to be all of 32 - is marvelling to his friends about being able to watch a basketball game live on his laptop as if this is some incredible new feat of technology. Well, I'm sure it's amazing to 72-year-old Allen, but I think any 30 year old would be pretty jaded about the availability of live video feeds by now.)

Anway - didn't mean to rant here, but is is always a pleasure to read the thoughts of someone who is equally appreciative of and frustrated by Allen's recent work. I will look forward to reading your future posts.

K. Bowen said...

Well, I hardly got 300 words out of it. Probably could have done more, but didn't much feel like it.

It didn't occur to me once to use the word "pestilential." In fact, I don't think it's ever occurred to me to use the word "pestilential."

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you greatly for stopping by and offering such a fine comment, Pat. I'm honestly a rather huge admirer of Allen, and when he fails to get his souffle to rise, I'm always more sad and frustrated than angry, even if it's bottom-rung Allen.

This film can be convincingly argued to be primarily a success. Bardem and Cruz are of a world distinctly different from the usual Woody Land sights and people; it's their performances that enliven his film, and I ultimatley wish Allen had made a film that was truly about them, not the two Americans.

Irksomely pestilential was the only way I could describe that narration without just crying, "God, it sucks!" Perhaps that would be better, actually. :)

Yes, Allen does tend to struggle writing dialogue for people significantly younger than he.

Thanks for stopping by again, Pat, and I look forward to your future visits. As I've said to others, you're perfectly free to comment on old posts as well (the blog is 3-1/2 months old now)--I'll be sure to respond.

KB, perhaps that's all Vicky Cristina Barcelona could summon from you. (Well, sounds like you could have written more but like you say you didn't much feel like it.) Many films are like that for many people.

I concur with your assessment ranking this film higher than Allen's most recent efforts. I just wish he could have moved out of his own way, because this film displayed some surprising freshness on his part.

Evan Derrick said...

Ok, finally here. :)

Excellent piece, Alexander, which does a wonderful job of delineating the pros and cons of the film.

It is interesting to note different critics' reactions to the narration. The only mentions I have heard of the narration have been negative. I don't take that to mean that the narration is universally reviled, but that those who didn't mention it did so because they were ambivalent about it (like myself). It either produced expressions of pure unmitigated rage or a "ho-hum" shrug of the shoulders. I have not read one critic who praised its inclusion.

Also, every single review I've read has made mention of the striking difference between Juan Antonio and Anton Chigurh. I did it. You did it. Everyone did it. In many ways, critics universally think along the same lines.

You propose an impossibility in your final line, however. Allen cannot cannot recognize himself as a treasure, for the moment he does that he ceases to be Allen. His "artistic stubbornness," his perfectionism, his pessimistic view of life and it's meaning, all preclude any kind of recognition of his own worth. It's just impossible. Asking Allen to label himself a "treasure" is like asking the sky to turn purple, or the Pope to become Buddhist. It just ain't gonna happen.

Alexander Coleman said...

Good points, Evan.

I agree that Allen's perspective almost certainly forbids him from acknowledging his own talent, but to me it's the one piece missing that would undeniably make him a better filmmaker, or at least one with the confidence to shake things up when he should, and believe in his own visual prowess so as to avoid using lazy devices such as that annoying narration. Alas, I think your point is accurate; I just wish it weren't so.

Interesting that no one has said anything positive about the narration. I'm not surprised.

What I found most amusing/interesting about Bardem as Juan in this film was that he took the "artist" role of his breakthrough role in Before Night Falls and then The Sea Inside, giving it here a comic Woody twist, making his role in the Coens' film all the more aberrant (in a great way, of course).

Craig Kennedy said...

I hate disagreeing with people I like, but what are you gonna do?

I've read all the carefully considered intellectual points about why VCB didn't work, yet I came with a totally different experience.

I can only think that my expectations were wildly different.

It's all good though. I prefer enjoying myself to not.


Alexander Coleman said...

Well, Craig, you and others have convinced me that I probably should take a look at this one again, at least after I'm done with all of the releases coming out now. Perhaps this is an instance where it's best not to be such a "fan" of the filmmaker; many who aren't found the film just about entirely successful.

Did you get cut off at the end?

Anonymous said...

Couldn't have said it better than your review. I enjoyed this and I'm glad he has another hit after the tired "he's over" articles. But that damn narration!

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Christian.

Woody Allen will never be "over," thank goodness.

Alison Flynn said...

Excellent review as always, Alexander.

I enjoyed the movie, though it was not nearly Allen's best. To be honest I didn't go in with any expectations. The narration didn't bother me so much as the narrator did. Maybe I'm just used to Allen's voice.

The acting was terrific. His films are always filled with great ensemble work. And Woody Allen is a fabulous writer. He can still tell a story with great humor and wit; and I feel that he does so here. I agree with you that it's not nearly the top of his game, though.

Barcelona is one of my favorite places in the world, so that may have added to my enjoyment of the movie as well. I frequented every single place in Barcelona that was designed by Gaudi. :)

Alexander Coleman said...

Thank you, Alison.

But you've made me envious with your tales of visiting Barcelona and frequenting all of the Guadi-designed places. :)

The actor's voice was, in its own way, probably the chiefest issue I had with the narration. Oh well...

Felix Krull said...

"Shadow of a doubt" = 2

"Vicky Christina Barcelona = 3

Alexander Coleman said...

I'm sorry, Felix, you lost me there.

Sounds like a potentially interesting mathematical theory, however.

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

Very old post, but I just saw this.

oddly enough it's most effective when it averts its gaze from the truly joyless American, Allenesque archetypes and finds visceral pleasure in the fireworks set off by the Juan and Maria pairing given life by the voluptuous Spanish Cruz and Bardem.

Absolutely. Coincidentally I've been watching "Big Love" as of late, a prolonged narrative with similarly unorthodox views on the exclusivity of the romantic/matrimonial nucleus. The most mind-tickling content in VICKY dares to suggest that for some human beings a sexual trinity is more emotionally and hormonally stable than a dyad (David Crosby's "Triad" comes to mind...). That this premise is mined for comedy as well as socio-sexual theory is all the more fascinating.

This is a trite, inarticulate thing to say, but my biggest issue with this Allenian exercise was that it felt like a perfunctory diary entry: What I Did on My Summer Vacation. The film's denouement seems contrived -- the Spanish adventure comes to a halt merely because the Thermidorian day are waning. I can respect the return to normalcy, but with the ending here Allen effectively shoots himself and his very piquant thesis in the palm.

Joseph "Jon" Lanthier said...

Oh, and I am thrilled to see the fledging Powerstrip on your blogroll, Alex! It's a privilege...

Alexander Coleman said...

Thanks for the comment and kind words, Joseph. And it's my pleasure to have you on the blogroll.

I agree that Allen was entering some rather sirenical territory, on multiple planes, with his film's narrative. And I too love that Allen's film is not limited to "socio-sexual theor[izing]," which I've been told "Big Love" is most pointedly interested in, but also quite effective comedy.

I see what you're saying about the denouement, too. I'm not sure I concur with you--there was a despondence about it that seemed more indubitable than other parts--but I do think your comment about the film being very much Woody Allen's cinematic diary, "What I Did on Summer Vacation," is very much on-target (and funny). Perhaps the ending only exacerbated this aspect of the film for you. It seems to have.

vanessa said...

I liked this movie but it did have problems. Not one of the Woodster's very best but not bad at all. Penelope Cruz is sensational in it.

Alexander Coleman said...

That is a fair assessment, vanessa. I hope Penelope Cruz wins the Oscar for it, which I suspect is likely.

Sam Juliano said...

I will be watching this again, as I picked up the DVD today of it, despite my lukewarm response due to certain "issues" (I bet Vanessa is speaking about the narration?)and the tedious narrative unfolding. But I admit I am in a big minority here, so maybe it's me. Penelope Cruz will probably win the Oscar, but Viola Davis seems to be neck-in-neck with her.
I haven't forgotten this great review!

Alison Flynn said...

I actually really hated the narrator in this movie. No one can narrate Woody's stories like him - I really missed his voice. Perhaps that's unfair, but it is what it is.

Barcelona is one of my favorite places ever, so I enjoyed the travelogue aspect in addition to the story. I agree with Vanessa that it's definitely not Woody's best (especially obvious after having watched Annie Hall again fairly recently) but I did enjoy it and the man can write like nobody's business.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, Sam and Alison, the narration just pulls me out of the film. I would like to take another look myself very soon, to see if I somehow respond differently, but I am fearful that I will remain cold with regards to it.

You're right, Alison, that Woody Allen can still write. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is, I would suggest, one of Allen's strongest screenplays in a long time.

The film did make me want to go to Barcelona and Spain in general. I still envy you, Alison. Hope you are feeling all right after your surgery.

Pierre de Plume said...

I actually think the narration serves the film. Although at first the tone jarred me a bit, I thought about why Allen would do it this way.

Alexander, if you haven't done so already, you might want to take a look at the VCB thread at LiC, where there's extensive (one might say exhaustive) discussion about this.

Alexander Coleman said...

Yes, Pierre, I do remember the marathon thread at LiC about this, and I know you felt very differently about the narration. I'll be looking forward to seeing this again in the coming days. Perhaps an epiphany will occur. Or maybe I'll just see it more from where you're looking at it. Thanks for the pointer, though. I'llbe sure to look at that again.