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Vicky Christina Barcelona – Woody’s sexual wonderland. Fantasy rules OK?

Two's company, three's just fun

Two's company, three's just fun

Vicky Christina Barcelona – Woody Allen

Woody Allen doesn’t simply film women: he makes love to them with the camera. I don’t really know how healthy this is or even by what criterion of health one should judge it. Cinema is irreducibly voyeuristic so we are complicit. If you doubt me consider this: by instinct Allen’s approach to the elements of film-making especially set-up, shot and editing is austere, analytical, workmanlike – no buzzy angles, fancy edits, or chocolate box pictures. He just wants to get on with his story, quickly and effectively. Except: when filming beautiful young women. Then his camera is sensuous and intense, almost forensic in close-up, at times lascivious in tone.

One mitigating fact in his favour is that he really does seem to like women: he is interested in what they think not just what they do. Against this one must say this deep interest seems confined exclusively to young and beautiful women. Rather like say Bertolucci and David Lynch for example, Woody likes nothing better than to put beautiful women sometimes very young, into sexually complex and erotic situations then manipulate the outcome and film the results. At least we should be grateful that he has finally stopped casting himself in these sexually charged and ambiguous settings. It is also true that those occasions with Allen when one feels a sense of unease at the voyeuristic tone of his filming women are far rarer than with Bertolucci and Lynch. Rarer, but not entirely absent. In Vicky Christina Barcelona for example both in Direction and filming, the kissing and sexual foreplay between Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johanssen has a detached voyeuristic tone very reminiscent of Lynch’s treatment of a similar situation in Mulholland Drive. There is a sense that this is not so much two women expressing genuine love and desire for one another; rather two women acting or being asked to act so as to sexually excite a watching man. Allen, like Lynch sails very close to pornographic shores.

In his years of stand-up comedy Woody made a great living out of inviting us in to his manic (sic) psyche: he made us laugh at his vulnerability and screwed-upedness. Like a bewildered child with a sex-God mind in a nerd’s body, he seduced us through laughter into sharing his often barbed, sometimes bitter self-mockery: of his Jewishness, the disparity between his sexual appetite and the realistic opportunity to satisfy it; his acute observations on the absurdity of life, especially the emotional tangles we all knowingly create for ourselves. He was the archetypal scrawny, shy, sensitive kid who might just as well have had ‘bully me’ tattooed on his forehead. So he made us laugh to head off threat or humiliating indifference.

I am not a great fan of the psycho-analytic approach to movies – though Zizek is pretty convincing that it can produce interesting insights. But as he argues, it is almost inescapable that to understand the films of particular film-makers, notably Lynch and Allen and famously before them Hitchcock, one must at least embrace some pshycho-analytic concepts. I would argue that Woody’s best films are those involving a passion he has that overwhelms even his love of beautiful women: In Annie Hall his passion for New York dominated his feeling for either Annie or Diane Keaton. In The Purple Rose of Cairo his fascination with the magic of cinema took centre stage. The best parts of most of his films have their genesis not in his passion for women but for jazz, for philosophy, for the irreducible absurdity of life. When the women dominate then things go queasy or a bit pear-shaped.

I say this because women in general, not just the three women characters in the film, are the central preoccupation of Vicky Christina Barcelona. And much of this is seductive: Allen puts three young women, each beautiful in their own totally distinct way, into a series of dramatic situations which systematically break down their normal sexual and emotional controls when they are serially seduced by the combination of Latin soul, Spanish passion and testosterone-fuelled charm of Javier Bardem. Javier I hasten to add is superb, typecast even. A part fulfilling the fantasies of most men, especially one feels, a diminutive 73-year-old red-headed geeky little guy. Last seen blowing people away in No Country For Old Men sporting a pudding-basin haircut to die of not for, one feels Javier may have found this a more congenial little gig. Bastard.

Vicky is the archetypal, Ivy League, tight-ass American woman planning her emotional life, her love, her marriage, her whole existence with a degree of clear-eyed administrative efficiency and certitude only marginally more thorough than Germany’s invasion of Poland. In the most absurdly ill-matched friendship since Miles and Jack in Alexander Payne’s Sideways, Vicky is spending the Summer in Barcelona with Christina who we are asked to believe, and why not, given the exciting fantasy possibilities it promises, is a free spirit sexually with no inconvenient barriers of moral scruple. Go Christina: or forgive me but as we might say – Christina goes. The two friends go out for dinner not so much on the pull as creating a beautiful bright pool of light towards which will be drawn any helplessly fluttering male moths within the Barcelona city limits. And lo, who should they attract other than Juan Antonio Gonzalo, local artist, notorious for having been stabbed by his wife as a transition rite to becoming his ex-wife.

Juan Antonio, which I think translates from the Spanish something like ‘you want to sleep with me’, with the assurance of Tiger Woods approaching a 3” putt, simply walks up and with ineffable charm invites them both into his plane and his bed on a nearby island. At this point there is a total unity within the males and females in the audience – all are saying to themselves – “why, oh why, isn’t that me?” Just different ‘mes’. Of course they go – for this dear reader is fantasy.

Pilot, artist, sexual philosopher, Juan Antonio is the kind of guy who can cook a candle-lit gourmet meal, knock out a bit of soulful Flamenco guitar (he has a night off here and lets Emilio de Benito do the playing) and then rattle off a few apposite chunks of Castaneda in a night of passion that ends only when his partner begs to be allowed to rest. A propitious little bout of food poisoning interrupts his no-falls straight submission seduction of Christina so he and the unconvincingly disapproving Vicky are thrown together. And guess what happens? Now that’s just cynicism dear reader. Shame on you. But of course you’re right.

Having notched up Vicky, Juan returns to Christina, in what I believe rugby players call a second phase attack and she eventually moves in with him because as dear Woody puts it “like most creative artists, Juan liked to live with a woman.” Ah, bless. Bastard.

Where’s Penelope I hear you ask? Well we are way into Woody’s sexual wonderland before Helena appears, for it is she, Juan’s knife-wielding ex-wife and third female gender type to create disturbance in the undergrowth of the male members of the audience – so to speak. And Cruz’s Helena, forced by a failed suicide attempt into a ménage a trois, simply blows them all off the screen. OK it’s clichéd, it’s Raimunda from Volver without the reticence and reserve. But in her own language, and that is critical, Penelope Cruz is a force of nature: beautiful, dark eyes flashing (do dark eyes always flash? Don’t they have a détente position – for parking say: coming to rest and being left alone for a while?) from within jet black hair that looks sexier the more unkempt it gets. Oh Woody, what have you done to me?

Much utterly predictable interplay including of course a few come-on teasers; a kiss here, a caress there, sufficient to call up those other two male sexual fantasy clichés – being in the gender minority in a threesome and watching two women make love. Viva voyeurs.

This is all pretty good ‘harmless’ fun without being really funny. Bardem conveys a kind of quiet charm without a hint of the justified smug triumphalism for which no guy in the audience would ever forgive him. Cruz is magnificently wild and off the wall: one can almost hear the secret silent masculine prayers – “once, just once Lord.” And then belatedly “but only once.” For just as women love but do not marry Juan Antonios; men desire but do not marry Helenas – except presumably Spanish men. What is so seriously missing from Woody’s take on this whole farrago of largely male fantasy is irony; any real sense of fun, self-deprecation or mockery. I can’t help feeling that one’s attitude to sex and sexuality should get lighter, less intense, more fun the older one gets. It does with French and Italian Directors. At times one gets a sense that Woody has the sexual attitudes of an adolescent trapped in the body of a septuagenarian. That’s a shame for someone of such talents.

The film doesn’t really end – it just sort of stops. That’s Ok, it wasn’t really going anywhere in the first place. It’s fun – rather more for men than women perhaps. Though to be indelicate one can’t help think that with regard to Javier/Juan there would not be many members of the stronger and more powerful sex who wouldn’t – as I am told ladies in their private Sex In The City counsels are wont to express it. I won’t state the gor-blimey obvious on the other side of the gender divide. I also can’t help wondering whether Woody, for all his apparent confidence in understanding women has quite grasped the counter-intuitive truth that you cannot infer from the fact that a woman is upset at being misunderstood that what she wants is for you to understand her.

The really bemusing thing about this little movie is the execrable narration. I love narrators in movies. I think it’s a great device – see Benjamin Button. But as used in Vicky Christina it is the most irritating, pointless, over-written example I have ever heard. The writing is so banal that at times it runs something like – “he got up and had breakfast…and had a coffee…black no sugar… then he went to the toilet…and then….” It’s not a narration it’s a pointless running commentary on what we can already see. The banality of the writing would be bad enough but Christopher Evan Welch ‘credited’ as narrator sounds like he is reading a summary of actuarial statistics at an Insurance conference.

Oscar for Cruz? Frankly her thrilling screen vitality and sexiness in her own language is far better than anything Woody gives her to say. Paradoxically she reminds me of a young Sophia Loren at her most Italian. But she is also all Cruz. Intoxicating. One can imagine why she was just too much woman for her one time namesake partner. I have a hunch that Marisa Tomei, the only thing about The Wrestler not over-rated, might shade it. Cruz will hit gold one of these days – but in Spanish not English. In English she’s a beautiful woman and an adequate actress: in Spanish she jumps out of the screen. She just needs the writing: and a Director who wants to draw out and use her inner qualities, not just watch them.

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