Woody Allen’s new film takes a sharp turn. It’s a departure from most of his other films in that neuroses is foreign, literally foreign, and perhaps more understandable in that context. The most overtly neurotic character, Maria Elena, played by Penelope Cruz, is the violently passionate ex-wife of the artist Juan Antonio, played by Javier Bardem. The two main characters, Vicky and Cristina, played by Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson, are mildly conflicted in comparison. The two American tourists, spending their summer in Spain, seem quite “normal” in comparison to the hot-blooded Spanish duo who can’t live with or without each other. And that contrast between the American version of normality and the Spanish version of living for the moment, a sort of tremendismo for artists, a ménage à trois for the Picasso in all of us, is the heart of the movie.
When Allen declines to star in the films he writes and directs, there is usually one character who takes on his mannerisms, his erratic speech, nervous ticks and neurotic outbursts. In this film, Allen puts that largely aside, though Rebecca Hall’s Vicky is probably the closest thing to a stand-in. But she also evolves the most of anyone in the movie, changing from contentedly Middle Class and a bit uptight, to someone ready to chuck it all to the tune of Spanish guitars and Bardem’s transparent charm. Woody is mostly Woody throughout his movies. Scarlett Johannson’s Cristina, on the other hand, starts the film as the more free spirited of the two friends, lives out her ideology of love in real time, and may or may not be thrown off that path when all is said and done.
In Allen’s movies about New York, we’re often left with a feeling that his world is not a place we would necessarily choose if we had that choice. Too stressful, in a haltingly funny sort of way. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the sights and sounds of Avilés, Oviedo and Barcelona draw us in, make us want to stay in that warm night air, hear the flamenco guitar, eat the local cuisine, and tour the masterpieces of the past and present. It’s as if Allen has taken a vacation from the States himself, shows us the life of ex-pats, and does not encourage departure any time soon. I think he’s saying that Spain does not make people neurotic (unlike New York), passionate, all-consuming love does, and when you’re surrounded by the wealth of history, art, music and the clash of civilizations that was Medieval Spain, what’s a little neuroses between friends.