For his 39th film, Woody Allen locates his main characters far from his Manhattan home and has them vacation in the capital city of Catalonia. Yet, despite being 3,600 miles from the United States, echoes of Allen's signature style still resonate, or rather vibrate and sweat off the screen.
Critics have commented how this is the sexiest film of Allen's career. This is incorrect. Match Point (2005) remains as Allen's sexiest film in its actual depiction of sex. This film, as in most of Allen's movies, has the characters do a lot of talking about sex, but we hardly see any of them actually in the act.
Even with a cast that couldn't be more sexy, including Scarlet Johansson, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, who has been Oscar-nominated for her role here, Allen can only tease us with sex. He throws it in our face, the fact that these gorgeous and overly attractive people are having sex, or seriously lusting after each other, and we never see it.
The titillation factor is probably at its highest here than in any other Allen film. How could anyone look at the actors here and not be turned on? When you're an American tourist in a romantic foreign city on holiday, you expect to be titillated. The hope for romance and the eventual climax that sex brings is something you can't help but think about.
Damon Wayans, or some comedian, said it best that everybody loves a trip because with every trip is the prospect of getting laid. Even for those who are married, a trip represents their best hope of getting some action. Spain, like Italy, in this day and age is filled with tons of sexually-liberated people who aren't as restrained, repressed, or as held back by the puritanical legacy in the United States. So, anyone going there has got to be ready for the prospects.
Vicky, played by Rebecca Hall (The Prestige and Frost/Nixon), is probably the only college student off for the summer in Spain who isn't ready for the prospects, and for the most part is resistant to it. When a sexy painter named Juan Antonio, played by Oscar-winning actor Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men and Before Night Falls), comes up to Vicky and her friend Cristina, played by Scarlet Johansson, and propositions them, Vicky wants no part of it.
But therein lies the essential schism between Vicky and Cristina. Vicky is the brunette and the smarter of the two, in that she's pursing her degree with more confidence. Cristina, on the other hand, is the blonde who has no idea what her major should be. No, I'm not going to use the words "dumb blonde," but Cristina is certainly more sexually adventurous. Cristina wants every part of Juan's proposition.
This is what I mean when I said Allen throws the talk of sex in our face. Juan literally just walks up to the two girls and asks them to have sex with him. There's no subtly, no innuendo, or double entendres. Juan boldly just comes up to them and asks them outright.
This is the oddity and the brilliance of Allen's script. The boldness and the open way in which people talk and deal with sex in Europe is such in stark contrast to the way people deal with it in America. Allen's narrator, who speaks in distinctively Allen's humorous tone but in a deeper more James Earl Jones voice, refers to the bohemian world that used to exist in places like Manhattan or San Francisco where threesomes and open relationships could exist, and where art and artists could flourish.
Vicky falls in love with Gaudi art and architecture. She gets swept up by the sounds of a Spanish guitar and the various sights and smells of beautiful Barcelona. But she's tied to her responsibilities and sensibilities that tell her that this world isn't for her, despite the attractiveness of it. Cristina falls in love too but she becomes the canary in the coal mine. She braves the sexy world of Juan Antonio while Vicky steps back to observe if it's safe.
Things get shaken up when Juan's ex-wife Maria Elena arrives. Penelope Cruz plays Maria Elena with a fiery passion that I've never seen from her before. She's an unstable third wheel. She represents raging jealousy, but opens the film up to the possibilities that most people who live lives of stern boundaries would never live. The problem develops that once those boundaries are blurred, it may be difficult to get focused again.
Despite the dialogue, you can tell that this is a Woody Allen film by the fact that, as many times before, adultery is the key question at hand. Are people content with the people who they're supposed to be content with? Usually, it's a man whose put in the middle of an Allen adultery sandwich. Usually it's a man who volleys back and forth between two women, but this time, it's a woman between two men.
In fact, the traditional love triangle is actually made a love square in this fresh, funny film.
Five Stars out of Five
Rated PG-13 for sexuality and smoking
Running Time: 1 hr. and 36 mins.