Cannes 2008 diary: 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona'

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Dave Calhoun is pleased to see that Woody Allen has found form again with his Spanish-set romcom, 'Vicky Cristina Barcelona'

Woody Allen surprised the Cannes Film Festival this weekend when the world premiere of his new film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona got a deservedly warm reception on the Croisette. It’s no masterpiece, and it has to be said that Allen has set the bar fairly low with his recent output, but this spicy comedy with Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson as Cristina and Vicky, two young American women with opposing ideas relating to love and romance, achieves a credible and enjoyable tone that’s been sadly lacking from Allen’s movies for far too long.

No sooner have Cristina and Vicky installed themselves for a European summer in the lush Barcelona home of some American family friends than the pair meet Javier Bardem’s Juan Antonio in an restaurant. He’s an impossibly creative and attractive lothario who invites the pair to share his private plane and bed on a weekend trip to Oviedo. Cristina leaps at the chance, but Vicky, who’s engaged to be married to a dull, earnest but loving businessman back home in the States, thinks it’s the most ridiculous idea she’s ever heard.

They take up his offer anyway, and the rest of the film sees the pair both, at different points, fall for Juan’s charms over the course of a summer whose warm tones and ample sun inform the entire look and feel of Allen's film. Cristina ends up living with Juan with both of them enjoying a loving Bohemian life, until his tempestuous ex-wife Maria Elena, played with an amusing shrill mania by Penelope Cruz, comes back on the scene and ends up shacking up with the pair of them and initiating a welcome screwball flavour to the proceedings.

These lightly melodramatic sexual shenanigans are played for laughs which is probably why they don’t fall flat at the hurdle of credibility as by rights they should. There are ideas floating around here regarding the ideals of relationships and the realities of living
with them, but to the film’s credit Allen doesn’t get bogged down in the stolid moral mechanics of his recent serious films, ‘Match Point’ and ‘Cassandra’s Dream’, and thankfully, the humour is simply better written than his last comic effort, ‘Scoop’, in which Allen himself offered a hackneyed routine of tired one-liners.

The cast here are well up to the job: Bardem and Cruz are more than willing to indulge Allen’s stereotyping of a wild and Latin romanticism while Hall and Johansson mainly succeed by playing their roles straight and looking good as the objects of Juan's affections.

That said, the film’s indulgence of the surface qualities of Catalan and Spanish culture may well have Spaniards booing in the aisles in the same way that many Brits reacted to Allen’s ‘Match Point’ and ‘Cassandra’s Dream’. There are plenty of shots of Gaudi architecture, long-haired Latin lovers playing guitar, and, as ever, most characters and homes are of the moneyed, barely recognisable variety for which Allen has already mined Britain. But you can forgive ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ these failings largely because of the overriding tongue-in-cheek, knockabout nature of the piece, its amusing script, and its largely good performances, especially from Bardem and Cruz.

Allen doesn’t appear to be taking himself too seriously with this film. Neither should we.

Read Cannes review of Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Che’ here

Read Cannes review of Clint Eastwood's 'The Exchange' here

Read Cannes review of Terence Davies 'Of Time and the City' here

Read Cannes review of Nuri Bilge Ceylan's 'Three Monkeys' and Pablo Trapero's 'Lion's Den' here

Read our review of Steve McQueen's 'Hunger' here

Read our review of Fernando Meirelles Cannes 2008 opener,' 'Blindness', here

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