Allen can be literal-minded about his thematic polarities, but, in this movie, he has put actors with first-class temperament on the screen, and his writing is both crisp and ambivalent: he works everything out with a stringent thoroughness that still allows room for surprise. And, through all the twists and turns, the ochre beauty of Barcelona (as photographed by Javier Aguirresarobe) plays a major role. The characters make maybe one or two more touristic stops than is necessary, but it’s a minor flaw. You can feel Allen’s excitement in the sensual atmosphere. Spain! A seventy-two-year-old man has warmed his bones.
Allen uses a narrator (Christopher Evan Welch) to explain who the women are, and, at first, it seems as if the director is just filling in backstory and telling us things we might have noticed ourselves. But this narrator does for Allen what narrators once did for Truffaut—he allows him to skip merely functional exposition and jump from highlight to highlight. Cristina first eyes Juan Antonio in an art gallery. Later, she is sitting with Vicky in a restaurant, and the artist, dining in the same place, comes over and suggests, with virtually no preliminaries, that the three fly to a small city not far from Barcelona for a weekend of sex. “Life is short, dull, full of pain,” he says. Why not seize any opportunity for pleasure? He’s provocatively teasing the Americans, but he’s neither a cynic nor a user. He gives good value; that’s why he’s a heartbreaker. Vicky, who appears to be composed of nothing but common sense, falls in love after one night, and realizes that her fiancé, a New York corporate lawyer whose horizons don’t expand beyond business, golf, and a nice house in Westchester, will never excite her in the same way. But Cristina is the one better suited for Juan Antonio, and she enters into a prolonged affair.
The way the women play against Bardem is fascinating. Rebecca Hall, a twenty-six-year-old English actress from a theatrical family (her father is the director Peter Hall), is tall, with a long face and a wide smile—she can look radiant one minute and neurotic, tense, and gloomy the next, as if she were channelling Allen’s stumbling anxieties (a common reaction in actors working with him for the first time). With Bardem, Hall goes back and forth between desire and panic, and she’s touching as none of Allen’s other female characters have been recently. Scarlett Johansson, who is still only twenty-three, has appeared in an amazing number of movies. There’s no mystery why: she’s charming and also pliant and openly sexual in a way that obviously pleases male directors. She’s at a stage in which her sensuality is more developed than anything else in her personality, but that configuration works for her this time. Going to bed with an attractive man is not going to tell Cristina all that she needs to know about herself. Allen has successfully captured a spirit of restless indeterminacy. Does Cristina have any artistic gifts? Before the summer is over, she begins to stir.
The movie is largely set among artists, in a kind of restaurant-and-studio bohemia (still a possible way of life in Barcelona, perhaps). What happens in this world when you have more promise than you can fulfill is made evident, with tragicomic results, by the figure of Juan Antonio’s former wife, Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), who is highly intelligent and talented but so tempestuous that she creates havoc wherever she goes. (She’s like a Frida Kahlo without the discipline to work.) The American women yearn for something more than bourgeois stability, yet Allen means for us to understand that a life of passion alone can lead to craziness. Maria Elena is an enactor of her own unhappiness; she makes accusations, steps across sexual boundaries, pulls out knives and guns. Cruz has never done anything like this: with her downturned mouth and wild black hair, she looks witchy and unbeautiful. For Vicky and Cristina, the divorced couple are a vision of Heaven and Hell at the same time. Juan Antonio and Maria Elena can’t get along, but their rebarbative effect on each other produces some good paintings. Is the art that emerges worth all the mess? The answer Allen offers is a tentative yes. One is meant to emerge from “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” believing that happiness may be elusive, even impossible, but that life has a richness greater than one’s personal satisfaction. There’s something stronger in the air—a largeness of spirit, as well as abundant physical beauty. The characters may suffer, but the filmmaker exults.