Has Woody Allen just been spinning his wheels in these recent years, or have the critics who say so just been spinning theirs?
If we can stop making such a fuss about how unsurprised we are to discover that Vicky Cristina Barcelona doesn’t seem at all like early Woody Allen, maybe we’ll be able to recognize and appreciate how much it does seem like early Bergman or Truffaut.
That is, rather than concern itself with strenuous thematic ambitions and contrivances of technique, here is a film that opts for what is perhaps a more enduring vitality, of empathetic candor. Here is a film that simply appreciates the emotional richness of life, and nimbly dramatizes it.
To be clear, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an old man’s movie about young and restless women. If critics do bother to engage him, Allen likely will have to contend with accusations of misogyny and delusion. But these claims would be false; to those who can admit that they recognize themselves in Allen’s yearning characters, his film will feel more like attentive reportage.
Vicky and Cristina (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) are the women. Barcelona is the city in which they spend a fateful summer becoming variously involved with a beguiling bohemian artist (Javier Bardem) and his emotionally unstable ex-wife (Penélope Cruz).
It’s best not to go into all the details, but here are some. Vicky and Cristina are friends, each comfortably but consciously of the middle class. Vicky, the pragmatist, guards herself with habitual rectitude. She has a corporate-lawyer fiancé (Chris Messina), the picture of security, waiting for her back home. Vicky’s interest in the trip is academic. Cristina’s is generic, predicated mostly on the conventional wisdom that Spain equals romance. Cristina is the sensualist, the willing naïf, without self-discipline and rudderless but eager for experience. As friends, they understand each other. But as tourists, they goad each other, with the conflicting impulses of domestication and desire.
So it’s sort of a big deal when the painter relaxedly invites them both to fly away with him for a weekend of wine and food and music appreciation and art-making and sex. On that last point, you might call him blunt, except that somehow he’s not. He is disarming and magnetic. The women don’t agree on how to respond to the directness of his approach, but, importantly, they do get on his plane.
Creative inspirations ensue. And of course the painter’s ex gets involved, turbulently. You might have heard about a darkroom scene, in which some things develop.
If from this description the characters seem merely like ciphers, that’s not so far off. Nor is it necessarily a deficit; the blanker they are, the more inviting for us to project onto them our own versions of the Euro-getaway fantasy and its complications.
That also goes for Christopher Evan Welch’s summarizing narration. No, he’s nobody famous, and you’re not supposed to recognize his voice. The point is that it doesn’t sound like Woody Allen’s voice, that it could be anybody’s. Welch, like everyone else in the film, is shrewdly, appropriately cast.
By straightforward design, Vicky Cristina Barcelona has a measured neutrality of tone. Its scenes don’t play in solicitous setup-payoff beats, nor cry out for categorical approval as either comedy or drama. Rather, the movie has the satisfying, no-frills procedural momentum of a good Law & Order episode. Only more, you know, Mediterranean.
There is a difference between phoning it in and knowing not to try too hard. Allen certainly is mellowing with age, and in this case that’s to his credit. Maybe now his films really will come to life.