Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Unbearable Lightness of Catalina

Vicky Cristina Barcelona offers a fascinating case study of the immovable object versus the unstoppable force -- or, more precisely, what happens when a narcissist gets a little sunshine and finally starts living outside of his own head. Woody Allen has been inching toward doing this over the last few years, after decades of inertia in what Alvy Singer in Annie Hall only half-jokingly called "New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps, the father with the Ben Shahn drawings....stop me before I make a complete imbecile of myself." Several increasingly inconsequential movies later, Allen has finally learned that only he can stop himself. It was time to leave. First he tried England, with Match Point, Scoop, and Cassandra's Dream, a refreshing locale but also with rain and gloom a little too suited to his temperament. Now Allen has retreated to Spain, at least partly for financial reasons, but it appears the change has invigorated the 73-year-old filmmaker without diluting his melancholic worldview. Although he doesn't appear in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Allen lords over the movie with unforced ease, like Prospero with a tan.

The Vicky of the title (Rebecca Hall) is a dark-haired twentysomething graduate student, engaged to a rich young American back in the States (Chris Messina) and traveling abroad in order to work on a thesis about "the Catalan identity." Her best friend of a similar age, the blonde Cristina (Scarlet Johansson), is a struggling actress, adrift and unattached. One night in Barcelona both are approached by a soft-spoken, emotionally direct Spanish artist fittingly named Juan (Javier Bardem) and within minutes are invited to his home in Oviedo for a Epicurean weekend. Vicky shoots him down but Cristina accepts, dragging the former along. These early passages reminded me of the first act of Thelma & Louise, in which the screenwriter Callie Khouri established one female character as weak and the other strong, then persuasively flipped their personalities over the course of the story. Vicky succumbs to a one-night stand with Juan and her hard-shell exterior cracks, whereas Cristina invests in a more long-term relationship, which comes to involve Juan's homicidal-suicidal ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), yet emerges more grounded, focused and artistically expressive than before.

In his more lackluster efforts, Allen collected terrific ensembles of actors only to leave them stranded. Here he comes through for them, with elegantly framed compositions (the DP is Javier Aguirresrobe, whose notable credits include Talk to Her and The Others) and dialogue that for once sounds natural coming out of other people's mouths. (Quentin Tarantino once said that he couldn't believe any of the pseudo-intellectual gibberish voiced by Jimmy Fallon in Allen's Anything Else.) Allen and Aguirresrobe help Hall in her trickiest scene, where she makes the transition from hostility to passion for Juan, staged as a series of fades on Hall and Bardem's faces; and she returns the favor with a performance that starts with what seem like idiosyncratic choices but add up to an intriguing portrayal of a person like Juliette Binoche's character in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, shaken by her own volatile emotions. As for Johannson, whom I've never thought much of, I'm ready to revise my opinion. This young actress, who seemed unsure of herself in Lost in Translation, has blossomed as Allen's latest muse. She makes Cristina's openness, seemingly so reckless at first, integral to her inner reserves of strength. Although her foray into professional photography also conjures images of Binoche's Tereza in Unbearable Lightness, Cristina ultimately becomes a kindred spirit to Lena Olin's Sabina from the same film. She's self-centered, yet also kind and forgiving, a survivor.

Maria Elena, on the other hand, offers no middle-ground between them. She's Juan's creative inspiration and emasculating angel, both life-force and destructor, played by Cruz in a comically flamboyant turn that does a giddy number on Bardem. (She also joins Nicole Kidman on the list of Tom Cruise's ex-flames who have recovered to win Oscars, suggesting there's still hope for Katie Holmes.) It's great fun watching his slick operator unravel from her mind games and bursts of violence. Cruz and Bardem come from a completely different cinematic tradition -- the colorful landscapes and emotional expressiveness of Almodovar and Amenabar -- and they provide a healthy push against Allen's natural pessimism and reserve.

In a way, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is Woody Allen's version of Steven Spielberg's Catch Me if You Can -- superficially dissimilar to a legendary filmmaker's body of work, yet thematically his fingerprints are all over the picture. Whereas Spielberg found a new spin on his daddy issues in Catch Me...., Allen covers fertile new ground on his familiar obsessions with the torment of love and impossibility of fidelity. The happiest union in Vicky Cristina Barcelona comes when Cristina gets sexually involved with both Juan and Maria Elena (played with a welcome lack of fuss by Johansson), becoming, in the latter's words, the "missing piece" to a relationship that is forever doomed yet unable to be dissolved. Yet even this idyll cannot last, as Cristina learns that she needs something more after all.

Some critics, like the easily riled Slant gang, have trotted out the usual charges of misogyny, which also remind me of the accusations of male-bashing aimed at Thelma & Louise (despite that the latter film was directed by the leathery Ridley Scott). I've never been much of a fan of Allen's films -- having really seen only a fraction of them -- much less his public persona. But his female characters in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (which also include Patricia Clarkson's in a small yet crucial role as an unhappily married older friend of Vicky's who tries to steer her from the same destiny) function similarly to Khouri's men in T&L -- as nuanced variations of the same gender. This doesn't mean he's been ennobled or enlightened by his self-imposed exile. It just means I know compassion when I see it, even when distanced; and the final meeting between Vicky and Cristina -- one sealed by her fate, the other still free to choose -- rides on a wave of empathy to spare.


Anonymous said...

I was under the impression the photo op days with the sexy actress posing with a cancer-killing butt hanging between her lips was passe.

Craig said...

That's not a photo-op, but a scene from the movie. Gotta admit, though, Cruz looks pretty enticing doing it.