Here’s an odd thing: in all the critcial hoorays that, after a run of heart-freezingly poor films, Woody Allen has delivered a sunny, entertaining picture with hot leads, no one seems to have noticed he’s literally treading in the footsteps of a filmmaker usually thought to have taken cues from Allen. Whit Stillman followed up his New York-set, Allen-influenced debut Metropolitan with Barcelona, in which two male American ex-pats in the Catalan city have differing ideas about romantic/sexual love which are shaken up in the course of relationships with the locals. This is basically the same film, with politics dropped and art substituted, and two girls instead of two guys. They’d make a good double bill – or a mash-up, threading together the stories from both films around the locations they share.
Sensible, theoretically-restrained, engaged-for-security-rather-than-passion Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and free-spirited, sexually adventurous, not-certain-of-what-to-do-in-life-and-love Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are written as types rather than people (at times, both talk like Woody Allen characters), while Barcelona – represented by sexy, frank artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) and his bipolar bisexual ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) – is an erotic, artistic fantasy that seems aware of its almost ridiculous side. In the playing, the quartet take on individuality – which is a modest first for Allen, whose scripts too often read like strait-jackets for the actors. What happens between these folks is that Juan Antonio frankly invites the two Americans for a weekend of sight-seeing and a potential three-in-a-bed romp the intrigued Cristina is keener on than the appalled but amused Vicky, only she gets sick and it’s Vicky who has a one-night stand with Juan Antonio – which she opts not to repeat so she can marry her fiancé Doug (Chris Messina – playing the recurring role Peter Weller, who got stuck with it in Mighty Aphrodite, characterised as ‘the asshole’), enabling Cristina to drift into a relationship with Juan Antonio which becomes a menage a trois when Maria Elena, who has at times tried to kill her husband and herself, returns to his house (this threesome works harmoniously for all parties, but the Spaniards are at each other’s throats when Cristina quits).
The plot mechanics are patterned on vintage Allen efforts like Manhattan, with the crucial difference that not only is he not in the film but that – despite a few Allenesque speeches mostly given to Vicky – he doesn’t even have an avatar like the stand-ins played by everyone from Seth Green through Mia Farrow to Kenneth Branagh in earlier movies. Oh, and it’s a different city – if just as fantasised and fetishised (Stillman was more interested in the specifics of Catalan-American frictions) and rendered gorgeous by ace local cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe. Allen has always cast beautiful women and made them look fascinating, but here he does the same with the male lead: like Vicky, we can’t tell whether Juan Antonio is a lecherous bullshit artist or a genuinely great spirit, but Bardem is perhaps the first male in an Allen film to seem as enticing and mysterious as the parade of women which began with Janet Margolin in Take the Money and Run (or the girls in What’s New Pussycat?) and now extends to Johansson (in her third film with Allen) and Hall. Some earlier Allen films have been beautiful; this might be the first which is actually sexy.
Recently, I’ve just been so glad that endurance tests like Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream were over that I’ve not even thought to argue with their endings; but here, as Vicky goes off to stay married to the asshole and Cristina leaves for another stop on the tour, I wanted to know more, since it seems cruel of the author to lock his characters up again in their traps. I’d actually appreciate a ‘Road to’ type franchise – Vicky Cristina Vienna, Vicky Cristina Hong Kong, Vicky Cristina Valparaiso, etc – to give us more of the women’s stories.