Dir.  Woody Allen. USA/Spain. 2008.

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Woody Allen commented in a recent interview that “My wife hasn’t seen most of my films.” Watching the first half of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, you can hardly blame her. Ultimately however, the film picks up and becomes every critic’s nightmare – an average movie.

It seems with each new film, Allen loses touch somewhat with his subject matter, which irritates primarily because you know there is a great talent within him for telling stories and making great movies, but his recent films lack any consistency to make them “great”. This phenomenon seems to permeate every aspect of the films, from the clichéd dialogue throughout, counterbalanced with intelligent introspection at the end, and even more so with the cinematography of the film. There are both the beautifully played highs – in particular an exquisitely accomplished shot in an art-gallery of Mark Nash (Kevin Dunn) and wife Judy (Patricia Clarkson) talking out-of-focus in the background, with Cristina’s (Scarlet Johansson) face in the foreground, beautifully reacting to their conversation about a man she is interested in, who is off-screen, with her eyes flitting around, and her private expressions flashing across her face for the intimacy of the camera as her sole spectator. This cinematic elegance is however almost immediately undermined in the following overly long scene in a restaurant, where Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) introduces himself to Vicky and Cristina. Their introduction lacks chemistry, and refined to a single table, the editor tries everything possible to add some energy to a scene that quickly drains our interest. As their conversation drags on and on in the shot-reverse-shot format, and audience interest is surely swindling, for some bizarre reason, the shot-reverse-shots become reframed, breaking the seamless flow intended in the film, and giving an impression that they were later re-shot and tacked onto the film in post-production. The reason behind this decision God only knows, as the last thing this scene needed was to be extended.

Other technical irritations continue throughout, especially in the sound design. Again, it seems like lots of work has been done to the sound in post-production, as there is no naturalness, no ambient sounds to give the film some life or texture. It all has a controlled feel, which deadens its emotional value. Although perhaps a contentious criticism, but one I am prepared to make, is about Allen’s use of voice-over in the movie, which is plain pointless and irritating, needlessly filling in bland ellipsis’s, and leaving nothing to the audience’s imagination, nor trusting their intelligence to understand the generic dynamics without it.

The film plays as ‘An American in Spain’, with Barcelona and Oviedo becoming exoticised in the usual clichés of American sentimentalism. It is hard to believe someone with Allen’s history of sharp humour and literate critiques could really have much interest or belief in these simplified views of life in Europe. The blandness of its viewpoint gives you the feeling of a boring friend talking you through an evening of holiday photos for the first half of the movie, lacking any real pathos or insight to keep you awake, with Juan Antonio’s “romantic” sweet nothings being played so straightly, that the film seems solely intent on destroying any chance it has at credibility.

Of the cast, the most talented actresses are criminally underplayed, while the less talented are given ample time to feel at ease in a similarly uninspiring film. Patricia Clarkson is unfortunately relegated to a side-role, though given a character that she can do little with on this occasion. Scarlet Johansson is mainly of interest here in a post-modern context of her playing herself on screen through Christina– an artist without any great talent, though desperately chasing success.

It is only with the introduction of Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) however, that complete failure for the film is avoided. One way to think of the film kindly is to see the first half to be a (painfully) long introduction, or very-detailed exposition, after which the movie finds its gears. It is Cruz’s initial snarling and contempt directed towards Cristina, which gives the film a central protagonist to agreeably align yourself with. She eats up the camera in a more lively and dangerous way than in say, Volver. She is not used as straight eye-candy here, as she also brings a sense of real emotion and anger to the film, which Johansson and Hall seem incapable of. The story also begins to loosen itself from convention at this point, as Maria Elena, Cristina and Juan Antonio’s love triangle forms into an authentic, loving relationship for a while, which brings out some interesting questions for each character.

The ending surprises, and offers further satisfaction in that convention is not followed, with its sour and bleak outlook seeming an unlikely, though quite honest contrast to come from a hitherto relatively sunny, escapist movie. The desires for passion awoken from the exoticism are ultimately rejected in favour of the security of a relationship without burning desire for Vicky, whereas for Cristina, getting what she believed she aspired for becomes too much to handle, so she chooses to revert back to searching, instead of living the life that she thought she always wanted. This ending leaves you thinking that today, most people would make the same decision as Vicky, ignoring passion and staying in an unloving marriage because you are too afraid to end it. Such doomed thinking rarely finds expression in Hollywood movies, and so for this braveness, VCB at least deserves some credit.

Shaun McDonald

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