Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a refreshing new direction for a director who has usually, even when reinventing himself, retained his signature voice. This is not the case with this latest film, in which Allen's presence is more disguised than ever. There are traces of him in the occasional quirky flashes of neuroticism and nervousness that burst from his young protege Scarlett Johansson, and in the curiously stilted dialogue he gives to Rebecca Hall, but in many other ways it's very easy to forget altogether that this is a Woody Allen film. What's even more remarkable about this is that Vicky is, essentially, a comedy, but definitely not one modeled on any of the comedic forms so familiar from Woody's earlier films. To find it hard to identify Woody's touch in a dark drama like Match Point is one thing; for the director to be developing a virtually unrecognizable new comic style at this point is something of a wonder.
The film opens with Vicky (Hall) and Cristina (Johansson), two American tourists arriving in Spain for a summer spent in equal parts relaxation and artistic pursuits for Vicky, a thesis on "Catalan identity," which never seems to develop beyond that vague two-word phrase, and for Cristina an equally vague quest to find herself in the arts, which she is passionately drawn to without having any real idea of what she wants. These underlying emotions are sketched out in economical prose delivered by a strangely disinterested narrator (Christopher Evan Welch, who seems to have been chosen for his entirely uninflected speech). This dry, self-consciously literary tone is off-putting at first, with its arch stylization and the flat cadences that give equal emphasis to the dullest events and the most private emotions. It soon becomes apparent, though, that the narrator provides the perspective of the girls themselves, a tourist's perspective on a foreign city, skipping through the details and always trying to tie together moments into a coherent story. The narration might be the story that Cristina, with her artistic ambitions and lack of clear talent, would write about the trip afterward, stripping every event of its immediacy and emotion and inserting ponderous descriptions of inner states at every turn. In this light, the narration begins to comment wryly on the action, the narrator's discretion ironically calling attention to his ellipses and elisions. These two girls are drawn to this foreign city and the ideas it stirs in them, ideas every bit as much influenced by their romantic notions as by the reality of the city and the people they meet. The film is about the way that tourism, and especially the particularly Western conception of tourism, eroticizes and exoticizes the foreign locales that the tourist visits.
The erotic tensions between these American girls and the city they visit soon become focused in the form of the painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a free-spirited man who walks over to the girls in a restaurant, compliments Cristina on her eyes, and then just as casually asks them to join him for a weekend of food, conversation, and lovemaking. The film is continually suggesting trios; the ménage à trois is its underlying structure, from the title forming a threesome between the girls and the city, to the shifting romantic dynamics between the girls, Juan Antonio, and his wild, passionate ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz). The two friends, as characterized by the voiceover, are similar in some ways but opposites in love. Whereas Vicky seeks stability and comfort, as epitomized by her bland businessman fiancé Doug (Chris Messina), Cristina wants something more adventurous and passionate, though again she would be hard-pressed to explain what it is. As she keeps repeating in various contexts, she doesn't know what she wants so much as what she doesn't want, and in this she is the most typical Woody Allen character in the film, always questing after vague ideals of artistic expression and romantic perfection. Vicky, despite her professed differences, turns out to be similar. She believes she knows what she wants, but soon forgets as she is drawn to the forthrightly seductive Juan Antonio. Vicky's speech, for much of the film, bears a close relationship to the narration; much of her dialogue is stilted and artificial, her cadences and phraseology formal even in casual conversation. This is not a fault of Woody's writing or the actress' delivery but a crucial attribute of the character, who struggles to maintain a facade that is always threatening to crumble. In unguarded moments like a stumbling, woozy back-and-forth between her and Juan Antonio before they make love she becomes someone softer, more nuanced. Hall gives a startlingly subtle performance, and the gradations between Vicky's stiff overall demeanor and the moments where she forget herself are truly stunning.
This sensitivity to emotional complexity belies the blunt simplicity of the voiceover, which is always reducing such moments to clichés. The toneless narrator can only state facts, and his dry recitations are obviously redundant when they are followed, as they are several times, by lingering closeups on Hall's face, catching the mysterious quality of a smile spreading across her long face, or the way her dark eyes seem mesmerized by a beautiful guitar song. Woody proves himself much more attuned to the emotional stakes of his story than the narrator, and his images are constantly undermining the distance created by the voiceover device. The arrival of Maria Elena into the film is, in particular, a seismic rift in the very surface of the narrative, her volcanic presence and Cruz's smoldering performance complicating the film's emotional tone considerably. Even the simple moment when Cruz, her eyes ringed with smeared black eyeliner, glares across a table at Johansson, is infused with intensity and dark humor. Her very presence, her stormy disposition always ready to erupt, is an anomaly in this brightly sunlit film. That the film has room for two such vastly different but equally masterful female performances not to mention the fine work by Bardem and Johansson is itself proof of the range Woody is working with here.
If Vicky Cristina Barcelona is at times a wonderfully nuanced drama about love triangles and squares and other oddball shapes, it's a also a subtly funny film, built from a very different mold from earlier Allen comedies. Its really hilarious moments are few and far between, mostly deadpan punchlines that hit all the harder for the sense of comic timing with which Allen spaces them out, and the casual way they're delivered. The dialogue in general has a pattering, back-and-forth quality to it that might be described as artificial realism, approximating the hesitant, unstudied feel of everyday conversation but stylized all the same. These rhythms are never interrupted or stretched for the sake of a laugh, and as a result the jokes build naturally and are dropped into the middle of conversations, where they can be noticed or not. This is a far cry from Woody's familiar comedic dialogue, where the jokes are telegraphed by the actor's vocal inflections and, frequently, where the character delivering the lines doesn't matter as much as the quality of the lines themselves. This film finds Allen mostly indulging a more subtle and character-based humor, in which the way the lines are read isn't nearly as funny as the situations and the way the characters react to them. At one point, as Cristina babbles about her life and ambitions, she suddenly gasps to Juan Antonio, "you better undress me before this becomes a panel discussion." The more obvious jokes, like the continual jabs at the clueless fiancé Doug's shallow obsession with technology, are kind of low blows, and mostly well-worn to boot. Woody may not have made (or heard?) jokes about cell phones before, but his sudden attention to such modern accoutrements now seems a bit behind the curve.
For the most part, though, Vicky Cristina Barcelona feels fresh and vibrant, mocking its droning literary narration while telling a tale that continually bursts beyond the borders of such staid explications. The film has little patience for academics or pseudo-psychology; when Vicky attempts to explain Juan Antonio's pursuit of free love as a compensation for his lost romance with Maria Elena, he simply shrugs it off, refusing to be cordoned off by such clichés. And when she says he only wants "empty sex," he rebuffs her succinctly and unforgettably: "Do you think that little of yourself?" The film is a celebration of life and vitality (and of course sexuality), as embodied in the characters of Juan Antonio and Maria Elena, even as it indicts its title characters for allowing their prejudices and restraint to get in the way of this unmediated experience of life. At its core, the film is about the way its two central characters apply a tourist mentality to the entirety of their lives, skipping over the surface and never letting anything touch them too deeply. Cristina, after briefly enjoying a seemingly idyllic romantic threesome with Juan Antonio and Maria Elena, blithely skips out on the pair, unaware of and unconcerned by the consequences. By the end of the film, both girls have flirted with and subsequently stepped back from the experiences offered them, preferring comfort and the known to the dangerous passions and adventures of the unknown. The narrator is, as expected, non-committal, but the final shot of the film is devastating: a two-shot of the girls walking through the airport as they leave Spain, their eyes blank and unseeing as they stare off into some vague distance, choosing internally to imagine rather than live their deepest fantasies.