Vicky, Christina, Barcelona
A Film Directed and Written by Woody Allen

The new film from Woody Allen - from his own screenplay - is one of his most successful recent endeavors, which have been wildly uneven in quality. He revisits themes from some of his most thoughtful and evocative films and opens an examination of basic questions that we all have to address.

Oscar Wilde once quipped that "There are but two tragedies in life: that of the man who does not get what he wants, and that of the man who does." This film is Allen's meditation on that same paradox. Working outside the USA once again (his previous two films were made in England), and away from his beloved (and often fetishized) Manhattan seems to be good for him, bringing new sensitivities and insights. As the title might indicate, there is a sense in which Barcelona, with it's overtones of Gaudian surrealism, exotic Latin passion and sun-drenched beauty is itself a character in the film.

The plot is fairly simple. Two young women, Vicky and Christina, long-time friends whose paths in the world have begun to diverge, go together to spend the summer in Barcelona. They stay with a relative of Vicky's who lives in a palatial villa on the outskirts of the City.

Their different back-stories hint at what is to come. Vicky has been working in New York, and is engaged to be married in the fall to Doug, an ambitious, upwardly-mobile professional with his eye on the American Dream of a beautiful wife and a trophy home in a fashionable suburb. Christina is just coming off a hectic period chasing her dream of making a film - a 12 minute short - which, when completed, she hated.

In the allegorical - but in his best work never obviously so - way of Allen's films, the two represent sides of a coin. Vicky is led by her head. She opts for safety and "satisfaction" - defining (and thereby limiting) what she "wants" and working - even sacrificing - to get it. Christina is led by her heart. She looks for the spontaneous, unexpected, unpredictable and out-of-control that promises adventure and passion.

In a twist on Wilde's insight, they both get what they want, and they both don't. Instead of finding her "heart's desire" Christina merely adds to the already large and detailed catalog of things she knows she doesn't want. Instead of joyfully and whole-heartedly tasting the fruits of her determined purpose, Vicky finds herself embracing resignation and self-limitation.

Allen's take on this difficult aspect of the human condition is at once melancholy and kind-hearted, an aging man's indulgent reflection on the unavoidable follies of life and "youth," into which we are drawn by our very natures. He doesn't judge his characters, nor prompt them to judge themselves, simply invites us to observe the traps they (and we) create, and philosophically accept the absurd impossibility of "coming to terms" with the irresovable contradictions with which we are faced.

The screenplay gets the point across, although Allen seems less adept than he is at his very best in leading the actors into improvised dialogue that sounds spontaneous and authentic. There are a few passages, especially for non-native English speakers Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, where the total immersion and giddy lack of inhibition required for effective improvisation - a condition Allen has often been able to conjure - is missing and it comes across more like an acting-class exercise gone wrong.

But in following the theme - which might be encapsulated as "desire (in the largest sense) and its consequences" - through evocative variations, Allen does create a sophisticated consideration of the problem that will stay with us and that we can mull over at our leisure. This is often an important part of the value in the best of Allen's mature films - not just the experience of sitting in the theater taking them in, but the interest in exploring the questions he raises and the connections to our own lives they bring up for us.

Allen the director still shows a skilled and steady hand. Although there isn't the easy fluency of his very best work, yet it is clear that actors are, for the most part, very comfortable with the characters they are embodying and the freedom they have to inhabit them. Well-known as "an actor's director," everyone wants to work with Allen and he is always able to assemble talented casts - from well-known Oscar-winners like Bardem to talented relative-unknowns like Rebecca Hall, to fine performers willing to commit themselves to supporting roles, as Partrcia Clarkson so effectively does here. In his best work, Allen's casts are always "ensembles" rather than a collection of "stars," and the way the actors work together here is very much in that vein.

Rebecca Hall as Vicky is able to present the wrenching break between the character's "plans" and her desires with a painful accuracy. She makes both her irrational vulnerability and her sensible determination co-exist - however uncomfortably - in the same body. Scarlett Johansson has the difficult task of playing Christina, a character who is defined, as she herself comes to realize, not by what she wants and aspires towards, but by what she doesn't want. Johannsson manages to put Christina across as a sort of "vampire," involving herself in the lives of others, feeding on their creative and vital energy, but never willing to commit herself, always looking to discover her own dissatisfaction - what she "doesn't want" in the particular situation.

Javier Bardem as Juan Antonio, the fiery artist who provokes a crisis in both Vicky's and Christina's lives, gives a performance that goes beyond the "Latin lover" to explore the emotional tension some people need to invoke to stimulate themselves creatively. His predicament mirrors that of the two young women.

His ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) is essential to his emotional and artistic well-being (as he is to hers) and yet they can't find a way to live together (except in a temporary and un-sustainable menage with Christina) without the emotional volatility that is the source of their passion getting out of control and tearing them apart. When they "get what they want" it threatens to destroy them.Cruz manages to make Marie Elena appealing and certifiably nuts at the same time making the "approach/avoidance" relationship fully credible.

The camera-work - by Javier Aguirresarobe - has a richer look than many of Allen's films. Allen - who has traditionally worked with the same coterie of technical people on all his New York films - is working here with a whole new crew, apparently recruited in Spain, where the film was shot. They bring a different sensibility to the look of the film that adds to the impression of a new expansion and exploration for Allen.

Allen is a music-lover, and the scores and music compilations for his films are always a treat. Especially effective here is the way he uses the dark sensuality of Flamenco guitar as a metaphor that keeps returning, with different colors and significance, as the story progresses.

Woody Allen has been one of America's leading "auteur" directors for more than three decades. It's not surprising when he makes a fine film - it's surprising and disappointing when he doesn't - as has happened in a number of his recent works. All the more reason to welcome and enjoy Vicky, Christina, Barcelona, which, although it doesn't clear the impossibly high bar Allen set for himself with films like Crimes and Misdemeanors, still comes close enough to be something to cheer about.

That's my take on it. What's yours?