There was a time when Woody Allen mattered. When one of his new movie came out, you had to see it on the first day (for fear that everyone would spoil the jokes for you), and preferably you had to see it on the Upper East Side (like at the Beekman Theater) where it didn't matter that you had to wait on line for hours. His movies spoke to audiences with a high-brow comic clarity that was unique in cinema. We understood his language and he defenitely spoke ours. His likes and dislikes were pretty much ours as well, and the relationship between artist and audience which began in the late 1970s, survived almost intact until Shadows and Fog (1992), to my mind, the film that detached him from his audience. His greatness is that he keeps on making films, although his audience of disciples seems to be shrinking.
In his latest film Vicky Cristina Barcelona, he essentially explores the impossibility of living "a trois," as he traces the triangles and quadrangles of the geometry of love. He travels to the lovely city of Barcelona, which his cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe has lit with lovely golden sunset colors, in order to narrate the story of how two American tourists (Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall) meet Juan Antonio, a Spaniard artist and bon-vivant (Javier Bardem), and how their lives are forever changed when Juan Antonio's former wife (Penélope Cruz) arrives on the scene. Surrounded by all the modernista Antoní Gaudí architecture Allen seems to be an ageless tourist with a passion for life and an uncanny eye for beauty, whether that be the neo-barroque curves of Catalan arquitecture or the heavenly bodies of the three main female stars.
For all its charming qualities, the film feels at times like a beta version of François Truffaut's Jules and Jim -- arguably the director's greatest, and most romantic film. Allen is no stranger to postmodernism, and has always been ready to pay homage to the giants on whose shoulders he likes to stand: Federico Fellini, once in a while, and more often, Ingmar Bergman. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, he yearns to channel the spirit of the French New Wave complete with scenes of couples bike riding in a pastoral countryside, and a narrator who tells us more often than not what we already know or what we could have figured out for ourselves. But the spirit of Truffaut's film is ellusive and hard to capture. Truffaut's work is essentially grand and tragic, and in this film Allen is unable or unwilling to escape his comic background. This makes Allen's film feel inferior and light by comparison, and the end result is a bittersweet movie which aims high but falls short of the mark it might have intended.
The cast is just right, though, and whatever enjoyment you can get out of this film is attributed to their performances. Javier Bardem and Penélope Cruz are perfectly cast as the Barcelonian artist couple. It is great to see Bardem playing a likeable character once again after his Academy Award performance in No Country for Old Men. Likewise, Penélope Cruz is perfect in the part of the "other woman." The Spanish banter between them when they fight (which sounded improvised) was delicious, although it would have been more believable had they been able to do it in Catalan.
Scarlet Johannson is now enthroned as Woody Allen's muse (rivalring Leonardo Di Caprio for Martin Scorsese) with a total of three films for the director. As the outright winner of the judgement of Woody, the golden apple that this goddess received is her ticket to join the list of Lasser, Keaton, and Farrow. As of yet, of course, there are no believable romantic rumors between director and star, and I hope that it continues this way. Better a Svengali-Trilby relationship for this Hollywood couple than to see Woody Allen displayed on the pages of the New York Post all over again.
I enjoyed Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but because of its imperefections I did not love it. One thing's for sure: the film's images continue to linger in my mind, and something tells me that they might be deepening with time.