Thursday, September 4, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona: Erotic fantasy

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) • View trailer for Vicky Cristina Barcelona
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for earthy sensuality
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.4.08
Buy DVD: Vicky Cristina Barcelona • Buy Blu-Ray: Vicky Cristina Barcelona [Blu-ray]

I've often lamented about the utter inability of American directors to wrap their brains around European sexual sensibilities, whether remaking French sex comedies or simply navigating the terrain on their own.

Too often, the results lack the necessary je ne sais quoi that (for example) French or Spanish directors so perfectly capture in romantic comedies that invariably come populated with a huskily handsome fellow and not one, but two or three nubile cuties who seem perfectly content to share their man ... or even other.
Vicky (Rebecca Hall, left) and best friend Cristina (Scarlett Johansson),
vacationing in Barcelona, have just received an eye-opening offer from an
attractive Spanish artist, to spend a weekend with him; he promises good food,
good art and plenty of lovemaking. With, he optimistically hopes, both of his
guests. How Vicky and Cristina react to this offer, and what subsequently
happens, fuels this film's earthy eroticism (which, alas, remains rather
subdued, thanks to the PG-13 rating).

This isn't a problem with Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a film so thoroughly drenched in Spanish atmosphere and sexual laissez-faire that one would swear it had been made by Pedro Almodovar ... all the way down to that director's by now familiar fixation on star Penélope Cruz.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is — for the most part — a thoroughly charming and playfully erotic study of two young American women who get far more than they bargained for, when accepting an invitation to spend the summer in the deliriously romantic city of Barcelona.

But, much as we'd prefer not to be troubled by real-world issues, this film is, in fact, written and directed by Woody Allen, a cinematic artist whose fondness for very young women has become just as notorious as that displayed by Roman Polanski. In both cases, their fixation on gals barely out of their teens — or even younger — casts an unsettling pall over a project of this nature.

In order to better appreciate this film, I therefore had to willfully forget that it came from Allen's obviously lecherous sensibilities; who could forget Scarlett Johansson's breathtaking bathing suit "reveal" during a key moment of Allen's Scoop?

With Vicky Cristina Barcelona being Johansson's third Woody Allen film in four years, it's definitely safe to say that the filmmaker has found his newest muse — after Dianne Keaton and Mia Farrow — while Johansson has found her current mentor. Nothing wrong with that, except that Allen's various excuses to parade his young star in various levels of undress feels a bit like ... well ... stalking from behind a camera.

OK then, the obvious solution is to overlook Allen's involvement, and simply appreciate the film for its own languidly sensuous atmosphere. Trouble is, that's utterly impossible, because Vicky Cristina Barcelona is narrated throughout, and quite extensively ... by Christopher Even Welch, who most certainly is not Woody Allen.

And yet the often lengthy narrative monologues "read" just like Allen. It's profoundly distracting to keep hearing quintessential Woody Allen commentary emerging from somebody else's mouth. Why he'd have selected somebody else for all this narrative "fill" is utterly beyond me, but it's an intrusive distraction throughout the entire picture.

So now we have two things to overlook ... but, in fairness, those able to do so will be rewarded with a frequently charming, sexy and romantic interlude of the sort for which Eric Rohmer has remained so famous.

The set-up is simple: Vicky (Rebecca Hall, easily remembered from The Prestige) and best friend Cristina (Johansson) have accepted an invitation to vacation in Barcelona for the summer, staying with the former's distant relatives, Judy and Mark Nash (Patricia Clarkson and Kevin Dunn).

Vicki, a graduate student in Catalan identity, has been drawn by the opportunity to study Gaudi's architecture and indulge in her passion for Spanish guitar. Cristina, the impulsive yin to her best friend's yang, is rebounding from an unsuccessful love affair and clearly wants to be swept off her feet by Barcelona's more prurient attractions.

Both get more than they bargained for.

During a late-night dinner following an art gallery visit, the young women are approached by a smolderingly sensuous artist named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem, quite unlike the chilling performance that garnered him an Oscar in last year's No Country for Old Men).

Juan Antonio comes with plenty of History, most particularly a violent break-up with an ex-wife, the tempestuous Maria Elena (Cruz), who climaxed their relationship by stabbing him with a knife.

Despite this, Juan Antonio remains optimistic on the subject of women, and in fact invites both Vicky and Cristina back to his home for a weekend of sightseeing, grand food and a shared threesome in his bed.

Vicky, happily engaged to an attentive but stultifyingly average bloke (Chris Messina, as Doug) back in New York, is apoplectic; the far more impulsive Cristina is intrigued and willing. They wind up going together, Vicky telling herself that she's merely chaperoning her friend.

It doesn't work out that way.

Cristina, prone to aggravating an ulcer by overindulging in food and wine, winds up convalescing in bed. With nobody else for company, Juan Antonio cheerfully settles for "sloppy seconds."

He and Vicky tour, dine and take in a gorgeous, late-night solo guitar concert. Against all better instincts, she succumbs ... but just the once.

And when the dust eventually settles, and both girls are back with Judy and Mark, Cristina gets the call for another romantic outing with Juan Antonio. Before long, they're living together.

It's important to realize, up to this point, that Vicky always has regarded herself as plain and unromantic, whereas Cristina has regarded herself voluptuously daring but artistically empty. All this changes when the latter becomes part of of Juan Antonio's regular orbit ... and all that changes with the unexpected return of Maria Elena.

Clearly, she and Juan Antonio never stopped loving each other, but their oil-and vinegar mix is too combustible. Ah, but funny thing: With Cristina on hand as a sort of smoothing agent — the missing spice in an otherwise exotic and vitriolic dish — all three function as a quite successful unit ... first artistically, and then collectively, in bed.

The degree to which you'll buy this subsequent romantic ménage à trois depends entirely on your open-mindedness, the impact of the romantic setting, Bardem's extraordinarily self-deprecating charm ... and the aforementioned off-camera narration, will by now indulges in far too many said-bookisms.

A French sexual comedy/drama simply wouldn't resort to so much tiresome verbal exposition, and it really becomes irritating here, particularly when employed to "explain" issues that are perfectly clear in context.

Whether Juan Antonio is genuinely lovelorn or merely an opportunistic rake is left deliciously ambiguous, and Bardem walks that fine line superbly. Cruz makes Maria Elena every bit the spitfire we'd expect from her typical parts in an Almodóvar film; nobody, but nobody, throws a public temper tantrum with the full-bodied fury that Cruz musters in the blink of an eye.

Hall is properly repressed and just waiting to be plucked by the properly attentive gardener, while Johansson is more huskily sensuous, even when fully clothed, than any woman has a right to be.

And the story even concludes as it should, with questions left about the ultimate romantic fates of all four characters, the film having been precisely the sort of starry-eyed idyll that any two young women might hope to experience in such surroundings.

Why, then, did I leave dissatisfied?

Probably because, despite the story's natural flow, and its many persuasively authentic touches — a visit with Juan Antonio's father is particularly charming; this older man writes wonderfully romantic poetry but refuses to publishes and share his work with a world he regards as "unable to love" — the film ultimately feels hollow and contrived.

Welch's narration hurts the most; he simply cannot put weight behind his often ironic, sometimes snarky observations ... an additional level of emotional involvement that I know Allen could have nailed perfectly.

Like the city in which these two spend the summer, then, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a pleasant place to visit ... but certainly no place to remain.

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