Sunday, September 28, 2008

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Love Is

Woody Allen seems to have a riot of a time making movies outside of New York, and truth be told, I find them pretty enjoyable, though some would argue I should revisit his earlier films to understand what's great. Then again, his "muse" Scarlett Johansson and a more contemporary cast are an interesting mix to gain a fresh following from a new generation of audiences like myself, lapping it up on Allen's wit, narrative creativity and candy eye cast.

The reason why Barcelona was chosen, and hence in the title, was because the City had sponsored Allen to make his movie there. I guess if Uniquely Singapore would do so, this could have been Vicky Cristina Singapore. Then again, I suspect some boardroom terms and conditions might have made it very pro-tourism video like. Of some of the earlier co-productions I have seen with the Lion City's money pumped in, you can't help but feel that shots of our landmarks almost always come across as something made for corporate videos, and relied plenty on those tracking shots, or worse, dug out from archives.

But in the hands of maestros, this feeling somehow doesn't even come into the picture. Landmarks become just another non-intrusive backdrop, or worked carefully that they become essential to the story without drawing attention to themselves. I guess we could all learn from this film how to do reward a city that graciously allows itself to be filmed and filmed using some of its investment.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is so titled because it is a tale of the two titular best friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) who spend their summer vacation in the Catalan city. It's an exploration of contemporary relationships using two characters whose view on love comes from total opposites. For Vicky, it's all built on the foundation of commitment, of being very structured and organized about it. For Cristina, a failed short filmmaker by her own standards, it's to take the bull by the horns, and to grab relationship opportunities in a rather cavalier manner.

In a test of their resolve, they meet newly minted star Javier Bardem who plays Juan Antonio, a suave, witty and sweet talking painter who audaciously suggests that they travel with him, and thereafter sleep with him. For Vicky it is near impossible given that she's on the verge of getting married and a definite contradiction of her principles, but to Cristina, it is a plus point in have a complete stranger come up and telling them honestly what he wants to do with them. So begins the exploration of love and relationships in 3 acts.

The start is a bit slow as Vicky gets to have a spanner thrown in her plans, that once you've tasted the forbidden fruit, you'll likely be clamouring for more. It's a wake up call and examination of a life that she thinks she wants to have, versus one that she probably would like to have and enjoy it a lot more. It's the classic tussle between freedom, and being shackled, of conforming to the idea that being successful means a good career with an equally career-successful husband, in an artificially created lifestyle involving small talk with colleagues/friends and the likes.

Cristina's dalliance with Juan Antonio shows how their carefree attitudes and bohemian lifestyles might attract and inspire each other to greater heights and the pursuit of new dreams and skills, though I welcomed the arrival of Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) somewhere at the halfway point, feisty and temperamental ex-wife of Juan Antonio, as she stirs the pot a lot more, and truly the three of them engage in quite a parasitical lifestyle, feeding off one another's energy, sexual and otherwise.

All the cast members perform up to expectations, though I reckon that Scarlett haters will continue to loathe her presence here. Javier Bardem does an about turn from his extremely dead serious role in No Country for Old Men, and here he's quite the Casanova in his pursuit of women. It doesn't have plenty of big moments and never lapses into melodrama. Events get presented as is, without the need to exaggerate, and it's always a plus point to have a dash of humour added as well in Allen's signature style. It might seem fresh and breezy on the outside, but underneath its veneer is some serious study into human romantic relationships that you'll be left pondering for some time after the end credits roll.

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