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Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Bizarre Love Triangles on Film
David Moats , February 10th, 2009 09:21

Don't call it a comeback. Dave Moats explains how Woody Allen's much hyped 'return to form' succeeds despite the filmmaker's considerable legacy hanging over the proceedings. Plus The Quietus collects 10 more bizarre love triangles captured on screen.

See our gallery of Bizarre Love Triangles

I'm always wary of films tagged with phrases like "comeback", "return to form" or "best work in years" - not only because such phrases are taken verbatim from the press release, but also because it implies that the director in question has been making shit work for as long as anyone can remember. Why should we risk two hours of our precious free time on such a director? And yet we always do. Are we all victims of domestic abuse? Are we so willing to forget past crimes and come running back at the first sign of a change? So, before we fall in love again with this septuagenarian, neurotic, jazz enthusiast just because he promises us a cheap holiday in Spain, let's dig deep and ask ourselves if a Woody Allen comeback is really what we need.

I know this is probably a sacrilegious thing to say about such a visionary filmmaker, but: he can be pretty inconsistent. Few directors have been allowed as much leeway for wild experimentation as Woody. But for every interesting idea like The Purple Rose of Cairo there are tons of 'nice tries'. What's Up, Tiger Lily?, for example, is one of the best ideas for a filmever but the execution is crap. He promises in the introduction to re-dub a super-kitsch Japanese action film so that the actors are talking about something completely different - as if the dialogue were rom-com but the visuals were spy thriller. The fatal flaw is that the original film is so inherently funny that you just wish Woody's dialogue would go away. For every comic gem like Sleeper you have something likeEverything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex* But Were Afraid to Ask", which is even more juvenile than you could possibly imagine and rests on the lone salient image of Allen as a neurotic sperm. It's not even worth mentioning the last 10 years since the excellent Sweet and Lowdown which saw both Will Farrell and Jason Biggs doing half hearted Woody impressions as the central character.

But even with his most innovative and successful films like Annie Hall and Manhattan the jokes can be hit or miss. For every moment of brilliance like pulling Marshall McLuhan out of thin air to refute the pretentious man in the queue, there are a hundred bits of lame shtick left over from his time writing for Sid Caesar back in the 50s. Then there's the cringe-worthy misogyny only barely balanced by his own self-deprecation. Annie Hall, the ditsy, irrational, emotional singer, is merely a man's overly-simplistic archetype of women only made plausible as a character by Keaton's excellent performance. Now, there's nothing wrong with making movies from a decidedly male perspective, especially in high comedy, but it's when Woody moves from high-comedy to high-drama that some of these sketches of females begin to seem disingenuous. When he's good he's good, but Woody Allen is not like some Kubrick who's clippings on the editing room floor are analyzed like religious relics. Allen certainly captured the zeitgeist of 70s America and certainly the spirit of New York but he is now past his prime and it will take a mind-blowing movie to convince me otherwise.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona, while appearing all fresh-faced and reeking of foreign investment, is not that mind-blowing movie. It is a simple story of two Americans spending a summer in Barcelona who are invited by an older man, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) to have a threesome. Cristina, being an impulsive, emotionally intense young woman, agrees and Vicky, being a prudish, and more importantly, engaged-to-be-married young women, declines but agrees to come along. It is of course Vicky, easily wooed by flamenco guitar, that initially gets with Juan Antonio but it is with Christina that he starts a relationship. Unfortunately, his mental ex Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) reappears and begins living with, and eventually sleeping with them. Ironically Christina's presence is the missing ingredient to stabilize the two Spaniards' volatile relationship.

It is every male writer's fantasy to comprehend women to the point that you could get into their heads and explain why they do the things they do. Woody accomplishes this only by making Vicky and Cristina's the most basic stereotypes of women: highly irrational, emotional and largely defined by the men in their lives. They are played like pawns to make various points about love (much in the same way that Milan Kundera or Philip Roth use their female characters as devices).The dry-as-hell narrator of Vicky Cristina only emphasizes the pedantic tone of the film and the two girls' very predictable actions. Javier Bardim's character, on the other hand, is mysterious, well rounded and utterly reasonable. Vulnerable but masculine, he is able to articulate the inns and outs of relationships with an unrealistic level of self-awareness surpassing even the kids from Dawson's Creek.

As usual, Woody's actors deliver the characters that are probably not made believable by his script alone: only Javier Bardem is classy enough to proposition two younger girls he doesn't know and not come across like a sex-pest; only Penelope Cruz could bring a regal air to a suicidal-nutcase; Scarlett Johanssen and Rebecca Hall also make their characters sympathetic even if their motivations are paper thin.

Despite all this, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an enjoyable watch but it only succeeds as a minor film - a loose, featherweight tourism video as opposed to the epic, self-conscious journeys of introspection like Deconstructing Harry. Ignoring all the film's baggage and hype, I'd be more inclined to think it was a film made by a first time director, straight out of film school - still in awe of the medium and the simple pleasure of photographing nice things in a nice way - as opposed to a jaded filmmaking addict who makes a film every other year regardless if he has a good idea for one or not.

If you see this film just forget that it is made by a famous director or that it is his 'comeback' and you just might enjoy it. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is not good enough to make me trust Woody Allen again, but if this was a film by some first time filmmaker, I'd probably give him another chance.

Click here for our gallery of Bizarre Love Triangles.