As movie bylines go
, 'A Film By Woody Allen' doesn't exactly scream sex. Sure, the New York neurotic has made it his life's work to dissect and devolve the physical act of love, but usually with all the romanticism of a side-burned sex-education video presenter, quizzically pointing out its bemusing affect on those who lust after it. Vicky Cristina Barcelona represents a shift in tone for Allen; it's still a movie about sex and those who seek it, but it's hung on a sun-blushed, wine-sploshed Spanish love triangle that's more appealing and more amorous than anything the director has produced in decades.
As the opening voiceover tartly informs us, Vicky (Hall) and Cristina (Johansson) are two young Americans enjoying a Spanish summer holiday at the behest of Vicky's wealthy family. While out supping on paella and downing Rioja, the girls are confronted by sexually virile artist Juan Antonio (Bardem, enjoying a much slicker haircut than he did in No Country For Old Men
) who offers to show them around his home town of Oviedo: "We'll drink wine, we'll eat well, we'll make love." Vicky, engaged to a New York lawyer, remains indignant, but Cristina, in possession of much looser morals, drags her friend into a sightseeing trip that opens eyes, minds and yes, even legs.
Characters here are pleasantly three-dimensional, Allen refusing to paint his protagonists as prudes and whores. Vicky's frosty reserve soon melts in the Spanish sun; Cristina's bohemian lifestyle choices aren't moralised or demonised; Bardem's painter is nothing but forthright, bearing his charming transparency on his sleeve - if there are any budding lotharios out there looking for tips on how to initiate a threesome, this guy wrote the book. The last-act addition of Penelope Cruz as Bardem's psychotic ex-wife just adds more fuel to the fire, but her arrival adds yet more depth to the love triangle (love square?) rather than simply serve to dismantle it.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona boasts a clutch of strong female performances, each complementing the other. Rising star Hall's assured turn is no surprise to anyone who's seen her sterling support work in the likes of Frost/Nixon and Starter For Ten, anchoring the movie with a grave sense of responsibility: look past her long hair and alabaster skin and you'll see she's Woody's mouthpiece, the wavering, nervous, uncertain voice of reason. Johansson is on fertile ground as the wannabe boho with a romantic deathwish, reprising her aimless Lost In Translation
jet-setter but adding a touch of sauce - her much-touted lip-lock with Cruz isn't salacious enough to sate the YouTube pervs, but it is in keeping with her character's boundless sensuality.
Cruz, however, takes the spoils - as her Oscar nomination attests - as the unhinged Maria Elena, a powder-keg of passion who burns through the last reel, forcing everyone else to raise their game. Together with Bardem, her real-life beau, the two produce fireworks on-screen, sharing a genuine chemistry whether they're locked in a fiery embrace or spitting incomprehensible Spanish slurs at each other. Between the four main players it's tough to pick a stand-out, but Cruz is the kind of high-intensity actress who can swoop in and elevate a mere good movie to a great one.
Don't discount Allen's contribution, either: it's been a while since Woody's work has felt so natural and fresh. Perhaps it's due to escaping the drudgery of familiarity: he's combed every inch of New York and it only took him a few movies shot in Britain before he released it's duller than dishwater. In contrast, Barcelona makes for a genuinely beautiful backdrop; teeming with eccentricity (thanks, Gaudi) and sexual electricity - as the sun sets and Vicky's eyes glaze over in the presence of a haunting Spanish guitar melody, you'll curse your stupid parents for not being free-thinking, wine-sipping Europeans. It'll be hard for Woody to return to the concrete jungle of New York after this.
The only thing that dampens the mood is an unnecessary voiceover that narrates the story with all the passion of a Speak & Spell. Allen must have been aiming for wry commentary; what he gets is something approaching the descriptive audio track for the deaf - it's entirely pointless and often insultingly basic ("She dozed restively," is one invaluable insight). Woody might not be used to telling a story through a visual medium, but his writing, his cast and his location already say more than is necessary.