Thursday, 1 January 2009

On Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona...

In 'Stardust Memories' a fan tells Woody Allen's character he loves his films "particularly the early funny ones".  I wonder if one day we'll be talking about the 'older weirder ones'.

After 'Matchpoint' I was expecting another cynical exercise in cloth eared dialogue, European tourism agency chic and Scarlett Johanssen pouting and I wasn't entirely disappointed.

The response to 'Matchpoint' was astounding, a film without chararcters, with unintentionally comical dialogue and a creakingly contrived plot was hailed a 'return to form'.  The, paying, cinemagoers I watched it with guffawed in places where I'm sure Woody hadn't meant us to...  some even stayed until the end and caught the trite and fashionably cynical ending.

This new film at least throws off that misanthropy but manages to be quite cringeingly bad in its own variety of ways.  The new dilemma for Woody Allen seems to be a desire to make light, entertaining movies that still retain some of the intellectual and cultural weight he could bring to the world of the seventies.  What this delivers us is middlebrow travelogues where the only laughs come from the predictable plotting.

As evidence I give you the third person narrative voiceover.  Nothing is more characterisitic of the literary form, and this of Allen's high minded view of his work, but then neither is anything more redolent of a film who's action or characters are failing to tell us what they ought.  The first few minutes of 'Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona' is genuinely strange.  We are introduced to Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johanssen) two American tourists in Barcelona for a month prior to the former's wedding.  What's extraordinary is a narrative voice over that tells us exactly what's happening on screen and what we ought to think of the characters in such a way that we sit expecting to either meet the narrator, have our expectations turned on their heads or perhaps watch an ironic counterpoint to the narrative develop.  Of course nothing of the sort happens.  The narrative's there to point out all the things a clunky script and one-dimensional characters can't.  

Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz (of whom you'll never hear a bad word in this blog) once acted together in the Spanish comedy 'Jamon, Jamon' and thankfully that's what they bring to 'Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona'.  As the seducer of the two Americans and his ex-wife the couple are pantomime Latin artists ("He's a painter.  remember?  He had that feiry relationship with that beautiful woman who was nuts?") and, more than once, you wonder if they're struggling to keep straight faces amidst the histrionics.

Whilst Vicky is placed at the moral centre of the film, ostensibly the plot is about her wrestling with a passion for Juan Antonio (Bardem) in the face of impending marriage, the film undermines itself through cliche.  The choices Vicky is asked to make seem slight and meaningless once we meet her crass and insensitive and crashingly corporate (which is innately bad in Allen's lexicon) husband to be.  Similarly Cristina's feckless faux-hemian slips into an affair and then a lesbian tryst and out again with such vagueness that we can't really be bothered to care.

Allen once made films that were funny as they negotiated a neurotic, liberated, complex culture he understood and was a part of.  What's clear here is that he really doesn't know who or where these characters are.  In lieu of insight he gives us cliches, he gives us portentous dialogue instead of subtext and the picturesque instead of the observational.  Now we have cliches and stereotypes that Hallmark movies might be ashamed of wrapped up in the trappings of middlebrow lifestyle porn, surely the old man's infatuation with Scarlett in the hills of Tuscany can't be too far off.

'Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona' is at heart a fantasy.  On one level a fantasy of love in glamorous upper-middle class bohemia, on another of Woody Allen still being able to make relevant and penetrating films.  It fails as both.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't agree more. I felt cheated after watching this lightweight piece of Barcelona Tourism Authority propoganda ( I read that they had in fact contributed 10% of the production budget).

    I've had that feeling for the last few Woody films and so as such I very much agree with the adage " I liked his earlier, funny films".

    I don't know who it was that made this film, I can't see how it could have been him. A chick flik, Rom Com ( Didn't Hugh Grant and Elle McPherson etc do a similar film 20 years ago?), puerile travelogue. (A dialogue seen shot absolutely right in front of Gaudi's stunning salamader piece?)

    Get yourself back to NY Woody!!