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Entertainment

Love? Are You Kidding?

What does Woody Allen really know about the human heart?

By Dorothy Woodend 29 Aug 2008 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee every other Friday.

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Cruz, Allen, Hall of 'Vicky Christina Barcelona.'

Woody Allen's latest film came out a few weeks ago, and I've been thinking about it ever since I saw it. This is unusual. Mr. Allen's recent output has been less than thrilling, and while Vicky Cristina Barcelona isn't entirely a return to form, it is interesting enough to stick in one's brain. In the middle of the silly summer, that's about the best you can hope for.

Vicky Christina Barcelona is Allen's 44th film, and the first to be set in Spain. Given that Woody Allen is now in his elder statesman years, past peccadilloes (stepdaughter lovers and 17-year-old high school girls) appear to be forgiven. Allen is free then to make lofty statements about the waywardness of human nature, which is precisely what he does here, through the young bodies and minds of the film's titular heroines.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are two friends in their mid-20s spending a summer in Spain. Vicky is working on her Master's degree in Catalan culture, and Cristina is merely on the run from boredom. Little do they know, but they're about to embark on a heroines' journey, complete with an entry into an underworld of sun, sex and sensual delights, embodied in the fine form of Javier Bardem. Along the way, both women will be tested, their principles and their moral philosophies found wanting.

The pair are perfect archetypes. Vicky, in traditional brunette fashion, is overly reasoned, rigid and controlling and about to be married to a Brooks Brothers stick-in-the-mud. She is more in love with the idea of marriage and commitment than she is with her actual husband-to-be. Cristina, a gossamer blond, is a failed artist, wildly casting about for something that will satisfy her restless spirit. She doesn't know what she wants, only that she does not want what Vicky has, namely commitment, marriage, all the components of a settled life. A helpful narrator provides us with all this pertinent information in the opening moments of the story, so we're primed and ready when the girls arrive in the balmy climes of Barcelona.

Older, wiser?

Vicky and Christina are being put up by family friends, an older couple named Mark and Judy Nash, played by Kevin Dunn and Patricia Clarkson (shamelessly channelling those old Woody-isms). The Nashes appear to have weathered the squalls of romantic entanglement, but then appearances can be terribly deceiving. The two girls tour the city and before long make the acquaintance of one Juan Antonio, played by the very luscious Javier Bardem. A quick aside: the first time I saw Javier Bardem was in Bigas Luna's Jamón, jamón, where he starred with a 17-year-old Penelope Cruz. At the time, Mr. Bardem didn't quite look real, or more correctly, he looked too good to be real. The man has aged like a side of fine ham.

Juan Antonio is an artist with a mysterious past, which includes a wife who tried to kill him. Sensible Vicky is appalled, but Cristina has the opposite reaction, and when the painter propositions them with an invitation to go away for the weekend, drink good wine, eat good food and make love, Cristina leaps at the chance. Vicky is dragged along to chaperone and into the belly of the beast go the young lovelies.

The fading beauty of Spain makes an ideal backdrop for seduction, and even as these young women are dropping their inhibitions like so many Salome's scarves, so too, the audience is being beguiled with rugged Spaniards and the pillowy softness of warm summer nights. We want this trio to get together, and before long, that's exactly what happens. When an ulcer flare-up puts Cristina out of commission, Juan Antonio and Vicky tour about, visit his aging father, drink a little too much wine, listen to too much guitar music, and hey presto! A moment of romantic heat explodes, as the camera tiptoes discreetly away.

From there things get more infinitely more complicated.

Deciphering love notes

Love is never simple, especially in a Woody Allen movie, but here the twists and turns are positively dizzying. Vicky in an agony of remorse pretends nothing has happened, and Juan Antonio and Cristina finally hit the sack. Meanwhile, Vicky's future husband has arrived, wanting to get married in Barcelona. But having tasted the tang of Spanish passion, Vicky is reluctant to go back to white bread. And then Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), Juan Antonio's homicidal/suicidal ex-wife, reenters the picture. Soon enough, everyone is grappling with escalating levels of romantic complexity, and no one appears to be having much success.

In fact, no body is satisfied. While Vicky desperately pines for Juan Antonio, Judy Nash (herself engaged in a deathless marriage) tries to save Vicky from her own fate. Cristina, having engaged openly with polyamory (a three-way relationship), isn't content. Her old restlessness having resurfaced, she leaves behind Juan Antonio and Maria Elena. Without her balancing element, they quickly revert to their old ways, and end up fighting in the street. Love in whatever incarnation -- boring and safe, experimental and new, violent and passionate -- apparently does not work.

So, what exactly do we, the audience, take away from this tangled web?

That no one is ever truly happy for long? That love will always disappoint you? That desire is a death drive, and ought to be avoided? That our nature as human beings is to squirm, bob and weave, and perpetually struggle after something that is, in fact, unattainable?

And, since Woody Allen's' entire film career has been largely preoccupied with these questions, has he actually figured anything out?

Why are we surprised?

The person whose philosophy seems the most reasoned in Vicky Cristina Barcelona is Juan Antonio, who simply says that life is nasty, brutish and short, so one ought to enjoy whatever you get your hands on in the interim. In this, there is something of the sexy Spanish, that old trope about exotic people who are more earthy and sensual, more in touch with their animal urges. If you watch a lot of Spanish cinema, Almodóvar et al, you too might come to this conclusion. Films such as Tie me Up, Tie me Down, even Jamón, jamón view love and sex with good-natured dyspepsia. Which is at least a healthy attitude. It's bound to go terribly wrong at some point, so why are we always surprised by this turn of events?

I don't think Woody Allen actually has any answers, but he enjoys asking the questions. And given his own tempestuous romantic history, it makes sense that his films would continue to go back to this particular well, and plumb the dark depths.

Heroes and schmucks

The film is dealing with very old questions, in a very old way. There are elements of Joseph Campbell's The Hero with a Thousand Faces, with some slight differences. According to Mr. Campbell, the basic recipe is: "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

If you ignore all the "man" business, the more important question becomes what exactly did they learn? What is this boon that they pass along to the rest of us? Here is where Woody Allen departs from classic structure. There are no answers when it comes to love, he tells us. There are only choices, perhaps, but even those don't entirely add up. There is an odd air of resignation in this film, or maybe more precisely elevation. It is the view of someone looking backwards, from on high even, the position of an elderly man recalling love's twists and turns with equal amounts of bemusement and sadness.

There's something about this that bugs me and it's not just the idea of Allen, as a director, moving his characters around like chess pieces. It's like a parting shot of cynicism from someone on their way out the door, saying "So, long suckers!" It's a sense of remove from someone who's done it all, realized that none of it works, and now wants to tell you about it.

Thanks a lot, Woody.

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