VICKY CRISTINA BARCELONA: Clueless in Spain

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CINEMA

Summer in Barcelona

By David Walsh

bardemrebeccahallbarcelonaWOODY ALLEN’S EVOLUTION IS A SADDER STORY. His Vicky Cristina Barcelona is flat as a pancake, without wit or substance.

Two young American women, dark-haired Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and blonde Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), arrive in Barcelona to spend the summer. A narrator explains that Vicky is “serious and stable,” with a dull fiancé at home, while Cristina seeks out risk and pain. She has made a 12-minute film on the subject of “why love is so hard to define.”

At an art gallery, they first see and are told about Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a painter still suffering from the after-effects of a stormy marriage. Later, he approaches their table at a restaurant and suggests that the three of them fly to the town of Ovieto for the weekend, where “We’ll eat well, we’ll drink good wine, we will make love.” Vicky is appalled, but in the end, offering no promises about “making love,” the two women accompany Juan Antonio. Once there, the painter and Cristina quickly pair off, but a case of food poisoning lays her low, and Vicky and Juan Antonio are awkwardly thrown together. One thing leads to another between them.

Back in Barcelona, Juan Antonio abandons Vicky, because, he says, of her impending marriage, and takes up once again with Cristina, who soon moves in with him. (The narrator explains that “like all creative men,” he “needed to live with a woman.”) All goes relatively well, until the artist’s unstable former wife, Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), enters the picture.

With each new Allen film that isn’t as embarrassing as, say, The Curse of the Jade Scorpions, the critics speak of a “return to form.” That would be good, but it hasn’t happened to be the case yet. In the first place, one shouldn’t overestimate even his best movies. Allen worked over the semi-neurotic, liberal, quasi-intellectual, Jewish, New York milieu for all it was comically worth, and it was worth something, but that source dried up some time ago.

It dried up in real life, as the Giuliani-Bloomberg years set in and a good portion of the social set Allen lived among and studied became wealthy and conservative, increasingly fixed in their views and lifestyle, hostile to adventurousness in any sphere, and less and less promising as a fount of humor or analysis, even self-analysis.

With each new Allen film that isn’t as embarrassing as, say, The Curse of the Jade Scorpions, the critics speak of a “return to form.” That would be good, but it hasn’t happened to be the case yet. In the first place, one shouldn’t overestimate even his best movies. Allen worked over the semi-neurotic, liberal, quasi-intellectual, Jewish, New York milieu for all it was comically worth, and it was worth something, but that source dried up some time ago.

The comic-writer-director attempted for years to ignore the growing divide between the fantasized Manhattan about which he continued to make films and the transformed social reality.

As we noted years ago, starting some time in the 1980s he was obliged to keep his camera tilted up in New York, above street level, to avoid the homeless on the streets and the growing social decay. Personal scandal seems to have played a role as well, in further estranging Allen from the real city and its real population.

Now he makes films in Europe, an abstract, picture postcard, upper-middle-class Europe, which is even less real.

The worst aspect of Vicky Cristina Barcelona is its attitude toward art and creativity, which is entirely superficial. The narrator and the characters speak about poetry and art and creativity, but genuine creativity has no presence in the film. Juan Antonio paints murky pictures and has nothing to say about his art or anyone else’s. He travels among people with plenty of money; his friend lends him a plane for the weekend. He drives a sports car and lives in a beautiful, elegant apartment. What is his art about? Why is he an artist?

Appropriately, the narrator describes in a voice-over Cristina’s immersion in Juan Antonio’s world of poets and artists (she has a more “European soul,” the narrator informs us), this supposedly remarkable creative atmosphere. We see them sitting at a table in a bar with others, alleged “bohemians,” but don’t hear a word of the conversation. How could we? What would these people be talking about? This is an “artistic” community devoid of content, devoid of artistry or commitment of any kind. The only shot we see of a sculpture that Juan Antonio admires is fleeting and from a distance. His father is a poet, none of whose poetry we hear. Cristina’s photographs are dull and uninspired.

The critics feel comfortable with this, because they travel in the same sort of complacent circles, where self-proclaimed “artists” plan out careers and marketing strategies.

Art here is reduced to a look, to a middle-class lifestyle, and the ability to impress a series of women (or men). The artist’s life, apparently, primarily involves the willingness to plunge fearlessly into experiences (i.e., love affairs) and to be “open-minded,” especially when it promises him or her pleasures, and not much else. There are terrible quantities of self-indulgence here. Allen is so awfully easy on himself!

If Juan Antonio is a cliché, his estranged wife is more of one. A tempestuous Latin, all nerves and wild hair and cursing, Maria Elena is a terrible caricature. It’s not Cruz’s fault that her performance is the most ludicrous in the film. It’s an impossible role. No one could have done anything with it, because it corresponds largely to banal fantasies. Again, there is no indication that Maria Elena has any reason for painting and no thoughts in her head. Her suicide attempt is entirely predictable, as is everything else she does.

Cruz and Bardem are working all the time, unfortunately, in an effort to make something out of this series of textureless, unconvincing and undramatic episodes. Hall, the daughter of theater director Peter Hall and singer Maria Ewing, has a tiny bit more to operate with and is quite appealing. The only genuinely authentic images I can recall are a couple of Johansson, sitting and not talking in Juan Antonio’s kitchen, in close-up. She looks slightly anxious, more or less like a real person might.

As we’ve noted before, there is absolutely nothing to gloat about in Allen’s decline. He once amused and entertained us.

David Walsh is a senior editor with the World Socialist Web Site.

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