It helps Allen’s cause that his story is about Americans in Europe: two graduates, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) – one dark-haired, sensible and engaged to a humourless, chino-fancying financier, the other blonde, instinctive and single – arrive in Barcelona to spend the summer at the home of expat friends of Vicky’s family.
The pair’s conflicting attitudes to life and love are challenged by a gift from the Spanish gods: Javier Bardem is Juan Antonio Gonzales, an artist whose looks and lifestyle typify Allen’s perverse, tongue-in-cheek idea of the wild Latin temperament. When Juan suggests a weekend away in Oviedo and, maybe, some love-making (Vicky scoffs, Cristina pants) a love triangle emerges that not only highlights and upsets Vicky and Cristina’s differing ideals but also lumps them together in the same camp when the triangle morphs into a square: enter Juan Antonio’s hot-headed ex-wife Maria Elena, played by Penélope Cruz, who makes even Cristina look like a nun sucking lemons. Allen seems to be saying: Americans, get over yourselves. Our sympathies are squarely with the free-living and loving attitude of Juan Antonio over Vicky’s uptight mask or the drippy attitudes of her fiancé Doug (Chris Messina), who arrives mid-film.
The script is witty and playful, the casting just right: Hall and Johansson make for a warm contrast and Cruz and Bardem are more than willing to indulge Allen’s Spanish fantasies while running with the comedy of their characters’ love-hate relationship. Cruz only appears halfway, but Allen sets her up brilliantly with Bardem dropping mysterious mention of his fiery ex into every other sentence.
Exploring the mystery of what makes intelligent men and women tick in harmony and disharmony is what Allen does best, and so we’re back in the territory of ‘Husbands and Wives’ or ‘Hannah and Her Sisters’ with this jaunt, which neither takes itself too seriously nor wastes its ideas with sloppy craftmanship, both of which have upset his plans before.
The film has a pleasing pace, using voiceover to hop between scenes, some of which are mere tableaux. There’s no Allen or Allen alter-ego in this film, although we hear his puppeteer’s voice: ‘If you don’t start undressing me soon, this is going to turn into a panel discussion,’ breathes Cristina to Juan. ‘Let’s not get into one of these categorical imperative arguments,’ pleads Doug, summoning the ghost of Allen marching through Manhattan with Diane Keaton. After a hiccup at immigration, Allen can keep his passport – for now.