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Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

by Not Friends Cinema Club

PAGE 1: Cutesy Catalan guitar. Split-screen close-ups of two women, one blonde, one brunette, yet both striking in their own peculiar way. Narrated descriptions of said archetypical yet diametrically opposed women travelling to Barcelona together. Shots of street signage confirming that we are in fact in Barcelona…

This script mightn’t have made it past the secretary’s paper-receptacle if they’d missed the name ‘WOODY ALLEN’ printed on the cover… While this opening screams of scriptwriting lifeboats for the incompetent, this film plays more like an art-house porno; not in its content (though it is undeniably seductive and a salute to fantasy), but in its utter disregard for suspense and no-bullshit approach to get us to the meat of the story (a strategy I shall now adopt for this review)…

We meet Vicky (Rebecca Hall), a tightly-wound academic completing her masters on Catalan identity; and Christina (Scarlett Johansen), a dreamy, ‘at-liberty’ artist who has just completed an underwhelming short film about love. The audience settles into their seats as they’re designated their ally (mine was an embarrassingly straightforward choice).

We literally cross-fade our way through the small talk, then after a montage of some token sightseeing, we meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a local painter who, like our film so far, is unapologetically candid and with no subterfuge presents his best offer to our two leads: ‘we fly to Oviedo, we eat well, drink good wine and make love’.

As expected Vicky is more than reluctant, bordering on being repulsed by the forthright Spaniard, while Christina is swooning (my alliance with Christina has just been confirmed at this point). But in keeping with the no-beating-around-the-bush approach, Vicky has barely voiced her apprehensions when we cut to a shot of a toy plane flying through a storm, on its way to Oviedo. And thus, our love-triangle is formed…

Through unfortunate circumstances, Vicky is left alone with Juan; and within 12 hours, (and despite her being engaged to the ever-reliable Doug), she goes from being constantly irked by Juan’s disregard for social niceties, to making balmy, midnight love under an olive tree.

However, when the trio returns to Barcelona it is Christina who strikes up a relationship with Juan. But, when Juan’s troubled and tempestuous ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), returns to Barcelona on suicide-watch, our love triangle deforms into a love rhombus of sorts…As he so often does, Allen somehow manages to inject a dash of existentialism into what on the surface seems to be just a frolicsome rom-com, in such a way that nobody else can without seeming like a knock-off Woody Allen imitator.

While seemingly archetypical, there is truth, charm and tragedy in every character on screen, which scotches any accusations of lazy writing, as each character is victim to the rueful fact: ‘only unfulfilled love can be romantic’.

This film is a witty, sexy, summery delight and is a mark of not only a master’s maturity and command of their craft, but a grasp of his audience.

Will Paine