Javier Bardem, Scarlett Johansson, Penelope Cruz, Rebecca Hall

Written and Directed by Woody Allen

Woody Allen’s affections for England and its complicated (and apparently murderous) social scene has come through in his last three films, but he travels south in Europe for this naughty, sexy romp that details a summer two American friends come to Barcelona and find themselves in a situation that makes them question their own stance on love and relationships.

Impossibly gorgeous Scarlett Johansson (a quote from Bernardo Bertolucci, director of The Dreamers comes to mind, where he called starring actress Eva Green “so beautiful it’s indecent”) is Cristina, free-spirited, often blithe and unwilling to compromise her non-traditional feelings on the silliness of love.  Her friend from college is soon-to-be-married Vicky, played by Rebecca Hall, a pretty, reservedly traditional girl who tends to say things like “guys, let’s not get into one of those turgid categorical imperative arguments”. Her deceptively cliché part is mainly due to Allen’s role-writing, but the only thing that’s turgid (synonyms include pompous and pretentious, words already that are rampant in the film’s dialogue) is to assume that twenty-something college girls talk like that.  But scripts were never meant to perfectly reflect how we actually talk.  How boring would that be?

At a restaurant the two of them are greeted by Juan Antonio, played by Javier Bardem, who makes a startling and frank offer.  From here the film embarks on a torrid and often-strange sex adventure that embroils the two Americans into the life of Juan Antonio and his old flame, Maria Elena, wildly portrayed by Penelope Cruz, for which she won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 2009.

Juan Antonio is casual, frank, and unapologetic about the bohemian life he lives and what he wants out of it, which Bardem channels wonderfully. And although he feels free to live his life the way he wants, he is constantly recalling his ex-wife and eternal flame, Maria Elena, who stabbed him the last time the two fought and ended their relationship.

Johansson and Hall do their jobs well, but no chemistry is as explosive as that of Bardem and Cruz’s, two Spanish actors familiar with each other and completely in their element.  Cruz, who I always felt was bogged down by bad translation in her English-speaking roles, shines here as Maria Elena, a raven-haired dynamite of a woman possessed and impassioned by nearly everything she does and, like Juan Antonio, is never apologetic for it.

As the plot thickens and begins to leave viewers wondering just how it will end, and just who Bardem will end up with, I thought back on the last Allen film I had watched, Cassandra’s Dream, and feared that a tacked-on, rushed ending would cheaply wind up the ending.  But Vicky Cristina Barcelona, while not what I would call a deep film, is intriguing in its delicate little unforeseens.  Vicky is made out to be the predictable one at the film’s outset, having already structured her life and going through any and all lengths to stay in her comfort zone while in Barcelona – but it’s really Cristina who is the predictable one, whose nonconformity and purposeful unconventionalism in love and life is really a transparent , immature façade that shows itself at the film’s conclusion.

And the very ending, where Vicky, having always been smitten with Juan Antonio, goes to his casa and nearly falls prey to his advances and her yearnings, is wonderfully unpredictable and imaginative. The last two mentioned adjectives are always what I look for in a Woody Allen movie, and it pleases me to no end when directors stay true to the themes and characteristics that made their earlier films so enjoyable.  Now, does that make me too traditional?

Images courtesy of zimbio.com