Saturday, May 15, 2010

Vicky Christina Barcelona - the compromise of choice

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a hugely entertaining and pleasingly unpretentious film. Woody Allen has always directed female actors particularly well and he gets stunning performances from Rebecca Hall (Vicky), Scarlett Johansson (Cristina) and Penelope Cruz (Maria Elena). The fourth member of the ménage à quatre, Javier Bardem as the Catalan artist Juan Antonio, is also very good indeed, as is the supporting cast.

The film could have been pretentious and offensive twaddle in less assured hands than Allen's. Two beautiful young American women on holiday in Spain falling for the same mature Latin lover doesn't sound very original or engaging. But the contrast between the two young women is nicely drawn and rings true and the location shooting and the naturalistic dialogue adds to the authenticity of the story. The shock to the plot when Penelope's Cruz's Maria Elena storms in is at once both hilarious and frightening - but also convincing.

Allen has an amusing gentle dig at self-satisfied middle-class America with his depiction of the dull as ditchwater Doug - Vicky's fiancé (Chris Messina). I knew that I was going to hate him when I heard him call Vicky "Babe" - and I wasn't disappointed. As the movie unfolds the key question is whether Vicky will choose dull old Doug or exciting firebrand Juan Antonio as her partner. The former choice would almost certainly be for life - the latter probably not!

When Woody Allen is at his best - and this film is very close to being in that category - it is satisfying and cerebral entertainment. The characters are not from a comic book but from real life and whilst a degree of poetic licence in the plot is necessary to move the story along it is never incredible. And as audience members we will empathise with the characters in a way that is much less possible in a more traditional Hollywood movie. We care about what happens to Vicky and Cristina because we like them and understand their dilemmas. They are serious and bright and attractive and real.

Is there a deeper meaning to Vicky Cristina Barcelona than, just, the romance and the charm? Is it in any way a "message" movie? I think that to some degree it is - and that the message is to consider living every day with the thought somewhere in your mind that it might be your last - Juan Antonio says as much at one point. And, of course, it is also about the luxury of choice. To choose between alternative lifestyles, alternative partners, alternative compromises. Each choice is a compromise to some degree because perfection is not just elusive it is impossible - the question is how far short of the ideal will you have to settle for?


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