As odd a statement as this may seem, as it refers to a fiendishly neurotic comedian with several failed marriages and a current relationship with the adopted daughter of one of his ex-wives, there’s a distinct possibility that Woody Allen has one of the most natural eyes for romantic storytelling in all of Hollywood. This isn’t to say that he tells conventional Hollywood romantic fairy tales where everyone’s found their happy ending by film’s end. Instead, this comments on his ability to draw gut-wrenchingly realistic tales of love, lust, and heart break from the most natural of settings. Annie Hall is widely considered one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time for its achingly heart-felt deconstruction of the star-crossed lovers story, and Manhattan remains an under-appreciated classic for its similarly mature take on the evolving definition of love and relationships in the modern world. While I’ve yet to see Hannah and Her Sisters, it too has a reputation for being one of the great love stories among intellectual circles. 2008’s Academy Award winning Vicky Cristina Barcelona feels like a modern (and bohemian) successor to the tangled love legacy of Allen’s Manhattan and is perhaps Allen’s best film since his prime in the late 70’s and early 1980’s.

In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Vicky (Rebecca Hall, The Prestige) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson, Lost in Translation) are two American tourists spending the summer in Barcelona, Spain. Vicky is intelligent but uptight and cautious, as well as engaged to her safe fiancee living back in the States. Cristina is more adventurous and free but is wracked with self doubt because she has no idea what she wants from life, only what she doesn’t want. While in Barcelona, the two meet the rakish and flamboyant Juan Antonio Gonzalo (Javier Bardem, No Country for Old Men) who invites the pair to a weekend in a beautiful Spanish village with the expressed intent of sex. While Vicky protests, Cristina is immediately enamored with this mysterious artist and Vicky comes along to protect Cristina. However, during the trip, Cristina becomes ill and bed-ridden and after a surprisingly sensitive evening out with Juan Antonio, Vicky sleeps with Juan. When the trio returns to Barcelona, Vicky attempts to return to her normal life with a fiancee (who has moved to Barcelona as well) and Juan and Cristina quickly develop a fiery passion. This love triangle is even more complicated with the arrival of Juan’s mentally unstable ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz in an Oscar-winning role), whose recent suicide attempt has forced her into the guest room of Juan’s house, a house that Cristina has recently moved into.

While I’ll dive more into the thematic and stylistic strengths of the film in a second, the movie’s real strengths are centered in its absolutely stellar cast. Woody Allen has a gift of writing exceptional roles for his female actresses, and when they put up the goods, they’re guaranteed to get nominated for Oscars, if not win. Scarlett Johansson proves yet again why she is consistently ranked as one of the most simultaneously talented and sexiest women in Hollywood with this courageous performance as the sexually adventurous but sensitive and troubled Cristina. Despite having seen her in other works, this is the first film where I ever really noticed Rebecca Hall, and she reminds of a young Diane Keaton (though significantly more attractive) in her combination of neuroticism and moral ambiguity. Javier Bardem is excellent as always and it’s easy to see in his effervescent charm how he would be able to so completely sweep these women off their feet. He is quickly making a name for himself as one of the most top-tier foreign actors working in Hollywood today, and I won’t be surprised if he adds another Oscar alongside his No Country for Old Men win one of these days.

The real star-turn however comes from Penelope Cruz. Having not seen all of the other supporting female performances from 2008, I can’t make a comment on whether or not she deserved her Oscar, but I can definitely say that Penelope Cruz is mesmerizing as the fiery Maria Elena. While I was enjoying the film prior to her appearance, the moment that she arrived in the film, the overall quality of the picture increased tenfold. While she was certainly spell-binding in her Oscar-nominated turn in Pedro Almodavar’s Volver, nothing else in Cruz’s ouevre prepared me for this tour-de-force of a performance. As Juan Antonio’s ex-wife and muse (as well as his greatest source of irritation), Cruz brings such intensity and manic energy to the part. There’s a dry and sardonic sense of humor inherent to all of Allen’s greatest roles, but there’s also an incredible amount of pain and tenderness as well. It’s easily one of the most complex roles that Cruz has been forced to take on, and I only wish that she had more of a significant role in the film as she was easily the most interesting part of the whole movie.

Where Manhattan dealt with the relationship drama and neuroses of a very specific hipster-intellectual subset of the New York City population, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is more interested in a modern deconstruction of the bohemian fantasy of the European artistic community whilst simultaneously celebrating the life and joie de vivre of that same community. Woody Allen’s script is chock full of the sort of pseudo-intellectual and artistic conversations that have become part and parcel of his most celebrated pieces, yet rather than having non-artists spew this pretentious babble, it comes from the mouths of the artists themselves and it lends credence to the film’s fairly simple tale. Similarly, rather than judging the relationship that grows between Cristina, Juan Antonio, and Maria Elena, Allen simply shows the beauty and peace it brings to these troubled individuals though subverts an easy story with the realistic crisis of identity issues in young bohemians. Allen is able to tap into that most basic of romantic impulses and desires and shows it with more sexual appeal and erotic power than Hollywood could ever must, but he lends the film its artistic credo by denying the audience easy answers or escapist fantasy.

The cinematography of the film is absolutely gorgeous on more levels than one viewing will allow me to fully comprehend. For one, it was shot on location for all of the different scenes, and much like David Lean’s Summertime, this film is a travelholic’s tourist dream film. the beautiful architecture, beaches, and mountains surrounding Barcelona are used to such marvelous aesthetic affect that I at times wondered if Allen had been taking a page out of John Ford’s playbook on how to shoot scenery. In the more conventional aspects of how to shoot a film, Allen also employs a large number of one-shot scenes without any cuts, and by preserving the continuity of motion in the scenes, Allen is able to more deeply immerse us in the psychological and sexual tension of these conversations and trysts than if he had spliced them up with endless fast cuts. Movie viewing has trained us to barely even notice when scene cuts so if a film makes you notice that a director is intentionally maintaining the continuity of his shots, it’s always quite impressive. It reminded me of Children of Men in that regards, although far less impressive technically.

For Woody Allen fans, this movie is just another piece of evidence showing the late 2000’s were a period of creative resurgence for Allen that brought him nearly back to his glory days. For fans of intellectually engaging romance stories, you need not look much further than this thought-provoking and intentionally unconventional tale of polyamorous love. It might not be the best film Allen has ever produced for surely Manhattan and Annie Hall are among some of the greatest films ever made, but the romantic comedy pool is notoriously shallow, and when artistically significant films like this come along, viewers can’t afford to let movies like this pass them by. While those who cling desperately to conventional moral structures may find this film patently offensive and those who need more traditional and resolution-centric love stories may find this film frustratingly ambiguous, for everyone out there who likes to be challenged and who enjoys the unconventional, this film is for you.

Final Score: A-

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