Don’t Call it a Comeback

     January 20, 2009

Written by Andre Dellamorte

Woody Allen has been making films for forty years now. Forty years, with forty feature length films to his credit if you include What’s Up Tiger Lily? That’s a lot of movies. And it’s understandable that if he makes some bad movies (which he has throughout his career) and then makes a great film (which he’s made a ton of). It’s Woody, so let’s say Sleeper, Love and Death, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Zelig, The Purple Rose of Cario, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Husbands and Wives, Bullets Over Broadway, Deconstructing Harry, Match Point. Twelve great films. And that’s not including his merely good films. As a batting average that’s pretty great. So add another one to the fire, because Vicky Cristina Barcelona is one of his great ones.

Rebecca Hall plays Vicky, Scarlet Johansson plays Cristina. Vicky is about to get married to a nice young man who she wants to settle down with. He’s reliable, stable, a touch on the boring side. Cristina wants to be an artist. As the narrator so perfectly informs us, she spent the last six months putting together a 12 minute short that she directed and starred in. She doesn’t know what she wants but she knows what she doesn’t want. The two go to Barcelona for the summer. While out one night, Cristina sees Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), and she has been eyeballing him long enough for him to know to come over after the ladies have had their dinner to offer a trip to a small town, and possibly a ménage a trios. Vicky is offended, Cristina intrigued.

The two go with him, and Cristina gets sick. Juan and Vicky spend a day together that ends in a sexual encounter, but Vicky has spent the trip protesting his advances, and rejecting him. When they return to Barcelona, Juan Antonio calls Cristina, and the two begin an affair, while Vicky’s betrothed suggests they get married in Barcelona. Vicky is reluctant, but agrees. Juan Antonio speaks constantly of his ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), and she then shows up at Juan Antonio’s after a suicide attempt. The three live together, but as their relationship solidifies (and involves Sapphic pleasures), Cristina begins to feel that same urge of boredom.

One of the more profound and simple question of life is remaining happy. As humans we want the same, but different all the time. And what Woody is after here is showing how that pursuit is ironically hilarious, but profoundly tragic. He does so, almost mathematically, with his two leads, one who looks to settling down and not rocking the boat, the other the exact opposite, but the end result is the same. There’s a lot of The Third Man in this film, too, particularly how Maria has a quality of Harry Lime to her. But whatever truths Allen is after, he seems to get under the skin of it, there’s real insight here, and a smart, controlled script that understands the measure of time. There is no wasted effort here, no gesture that exists without purpose, whether comic or revealing (Juan Antonio’s insistence to speak English is a perfect example of both).

That Woody Allen gets great performances out of his people is of no shock, but I think special attention should be granted Rebecca Hall, who is playing what would be called the Woody-surrogate role, but she manages to make it so much her own that it works on a level that most of these performances don’t. She manages to both be Woody and not be Woody in such a way that it transfixes.

I would say that 2008 was a rocky year, and I still have some films to see, but Vicky Cristina Barcelona remains at the top of my list of best films of the year. The Weinstein Company’s release will do little to convince anyone of that, the film comes in 2.0 mono, and features no extras, but the 1080p transfer is excellent, and lush, and everything you would want of a film shot in Barcelona.

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