Thursday, January 22, 2009


Cast: Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz, Rebecca Hall, Chris Messina
Director: Woody Allen
Runtime: 96 min.
Rating: ***1/2
Genre: Comedy, Romance, Drama

        Ms. Johansson seems to have become a caricature of herself. More and more I see her playing variations of the kind of image that films like The Spirit spread around. Michael Sicinski down at The Academic Hack remarks how “Vicky Cristina Barcelona inadvertently displays her as a parody of her image – the thinking man’s sexpot”. Sexpot? Oh yes. Not too sure about the thinking part though. She adds exactly the kind of vitality her physical presence is expected to, and whatever depth is intended of her escaped me. I believe Mr. Allen deliberately constructs her as a caricature on the kind of pseudo free-thinkers (maybe even intellectuals) a society and culture like America is so very prone to. I’m no expert in these matters, and my social science index might probably be lingering around sub-zero levels. But I observe, and perceive that we aren’t much different either, in that our tastes generally tend towards the middle-brow. Radical, free-thinking, and open-mindedness is something we aren’t naturally inclined to (we’re conservative), and when we do seek such tastes, we essentially tend to follow than to lead. Often we’re shocked, often we’re surprised. Derivative might be an apt word here. Genuine nonchalant and unpretentious free-thinkers might be so rare they could be found on the map.
        Such are the ideas the two titular characters installed within me – Vicky (Ms. Hall) and Cristina (Ms. Johansson) – both caricatures of a culture that is torn between the essentially conservative (but fascinated by the grass on the other side) and the pseudo. In a way, they are both pseudo. And they decide to spend the summer in Vicky’s relatives’ home down in Barcelona. They’re fast friends, these two, people who understand each other. The former is in love with a guy called Doug (Mr. Messina), who in all probability works in a 9-5 job, and offers the kind of stability in life Vicky has always sought. She is the kind of person who thinks she knows what she wants, and comes across as somebody who appears to be wise and mature, someone who vehemently despises an impulsive act. Curious it is that we are often vehement about the thing that might be our weakness, and having such a deliberate form of indifference is often a strategy to convince the self more than anything else. Cristina is the opposite. She has just finished breaking off for the umpteenth time. She describes herself as someone who has no idea what she wants from life and love, but is sure what she doesn’t want. She is prone to impulsive flings, and such a predicament arises when Juan Antonio (Mr. Bardem), an artist, walks across to their table and asks them out for a weekend in his hometown Oviedo, where they can eat, drink, roam, see and have sex. Antonio doesn’t miss a beat, and he is absolutely forthright. Cut to the chase. More appropriately, cut to the bed.
        Now, Vicky is a student of Catalan studies, and is here to learn about the culture. Cristina, on the other hand, has just completed making a 12-minute short on why love is so hard to define. And she hates the finished product. Why is she here then? For a change of scenery. Apparently, she despises the ‘puritanical’ and ‘materialistic’ way of American life, and thinks of herself as more of a ‘European soul’. She sees herself leading a Bohemian way of life, and the romance such a notion holds. Is she cut out for it? We learn the answers in Oviedo, and much more. For starters there is Maria Elena (Ms. Cruz), Antonio’s volatile ex-wife. They’re an odd couple, these two, in a fascinating love-hate relationship. So much love that she tries to kill herself. So much hate she tries to kill him one time. By pitching this couple against its two titular characters, Vicky Cristina Barcelona draws an interesting little story out of causing severe introspection on their part. And often, the poor old fiancé working the 9-5 shift is invoked too, just to drive home a joke or a point.
        Now, let us be sure of one thing here. This is a minor entry into Mr. Allen’s illustrious filmography. Of course, a minor Allen film has more to say than most films. But then, we aren’t watching most films, and for an Allen films there’re uncharacteristic pitfalls that have become so characteristic of him of late. For one, Allen at his best always develops all his characters, and lends them a certain depth before laughing at them. For instance Cristina here, who is dumb by most if not all means, and the film even makes fun of her on her face. One of the major characters likens her to ‘salt’. Maria Elena cuts a more apt metaphor, by describing her as that tint when added to a palette makes the color beautiful. Ms. Johansson is blond, mind you. Look how the film cuts to Vicky’s husband Doug when Cristina is describing her chance moment of passion with Maria, and how his jaw drops down. As if saying, you wish. Make no mistake, Cristina is merely an object of desire. The film still exists from her point of view, lends her feelings instead of just making her the rear end of a joke, and that is why feel for her and laugh at her at the same time.
        Mr. Allen doesn’t exhibit the same intelligence with some of the other characters. Say for instance Doug, who is given no chance at all. Look, when a filmmaker is citing an argument or an opinion what I seek is a fair treatment to both the sides. That is when I hail the intelligence and intellect of a film. Vicky Cristina Barcelona pays a lot of attention in romanticizing the European bohemian way of life, but pays scant regard to the stable more mundane lifestyle of the conventional. He etches a deep character out of the former and draws a cliché of the latter. Maybe, he even acknowledges the same when Doug remarks this contempt for normal values pretentious and a boring cliché. But he doesn’t necessarily do anything to rectify this cliché. Doug and his likes are given overtly dull dialogs, as if they’re simply incapable of an intelligent or an interesting conversation, and often mutes the scene when they’re speaking. Is it condescending? Hell yes. Is it a fair chance? Hell no. I understand that the film is about Vicky and Cristina and their view of themselves and the world around. But intelligence is when one paints a fair enough picture of that world before causing introspection. Clichéd kinda takes the easy way out. Razor sharp cynicism is fascinating, but a shallow one feels kinda tasteless. After the premiere of Match Point, Mr. Allen once observed that cynicism is an alternate way to spell reality. Guess Vicky Cristina Barcelona fails on that count.
        And that is not the only count. In a horrendous miscalculation, Mr. Allen decides to use the voice-over of the actor Christopher Evan Welch to narrate large passages of the film. It would have been a nice little Brechtian trick, if the voiceover and its tone and its content had been used for an insightful and cynical read into these lives. That isn’t the case, and more often than not, it performs no other function other than to state what is apparent and obvious. It isn’t witty either. We seem go out sightseeing, and the commentary supplies that very information. We see them on a boat, and the commentary supplies that very information. After a while, it becomes a straight-out nuisance, dumbing down the proceedings. It is an utterly stupid mistake, one I still cannot believe Mr. Allen is capable of making. And yet he did. And it almost brings down the house, were it not for the beautiful performances. Of course you expect that when it comes to a Woody Allen film. Be it Javier Bardem as the charming European fantasy, or Penelope Cruz as the temperamental ex, they both ignite the screen. Ms. Cruz’s performance is one of the best of the year, and it should be a worthy contender for consideration come awards season. The soul of the film though rests with Ms. Hall who gives one of the year’s finest in a supremely nuanced performance. She is the heart of the film just as Ms. Johansson is the face of it. Quite a few emotions are stirred on her part, and she is one whom we end up feeling for the most. Ms. Hall is steadily turning into a terrific actress (the only positive I could draw from Frost/Nixon). She feels like someone who is naturally charming, and with her wide eyes vulnerable at the same time. It is interesting to note that she co-starred with Ms. Johansson in The Prestige, and even there I was greatly drawn towards her.
        Look Vicky Cristina Barcelona isn’t a ha-ha funny film, and neither is it intended to be. Light might be appear to be better term. And light it feels when juxtaposed against Mr. Allen’s oeuvre of heavyweights. But there’s a certain sadness to the unrealized fantasies here. This is his fourth consecutive film outside of the United States (Match Point, Scoop, and Cassandra’s Dream the others), and like most filmmakers worth their salt has let the new world bring a whole new beauty to his films. There is so much infusion of brightness and warm colors you might want to bask in it. I was watching the film in the wee hours of the morning, and as the first of the morning rays broke in through the windows, the lush colors of the film brought in a separate nostalgic feeling within me, a yearning for a dreamy little place. There are three beautiful women in that place too, and you would want to savor them too. Only that you expect a little extra when it is a Woody Allen film. Problem is you can’t expect a man who has been so prolifically consistent over the years to deliver every time.


Srikanth said...

Nice read Satish.

I felt the voice over did add to the light hearted mood of the film. As if looking back into the past and laughing it all off. And I kind of felt that the Brechtian effect was achieved by it. What could have been a sleepy drama is instead made into an engaging picture of love, all in the spanish way....

Hope Mr. Bardem or Ms. Cruz make it to the nominations that are to be released half an hour from now,,,

Sadanand Renapurkar said...

Voice overs should be very very carefully used. No, it didn't add any lighthearted mood to the movie. Rather it was a grave mistake. I won't say it ruined the movie as there wasn't much to ruin but it was kinda dumb.

Oh Ms. Hall, Satish, I almost missed a heartbeat when they kissed for the first time. And there's that vulnerability (although she's all tough and committed on the outside). Let me see more of her stuff.