In the first decade of the 21st century, Woody Allen made a series of films set mostly outside of his traditional New York milieu. These included a trilogy of UK-based films, including Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, both dramas focused on social class and crime. Allen had done serious before — his 1989 film Crimes and Misdemeanors is widely considered one of his best films — but never at such a remove from his previous repertoire.
A little lightness was in order. Perhaps that’s why Vicky Cristina Barcelona was hailed as a return to form upon its release in 2008, despite being filmed an ocean away from dreamy views of the Manhattan Bridge. The film ripples with quick wit and features the kind of stellar ensemble cast that makes Allen’s best work so effective.
He thrives in a world of clever people with interesting jobs and gorgeous places to live, and, to that end, Vicky Cristina Barcelona prevails. It doesn’t take long for the luscious scenery of Barcelona and the Spanish countryside to prove every bit as seductive as Javier Bardem at peak smolder.
The film follows two young American women, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), who have decamped to Barcelona to spend the summer with Vicky’s relatives. Best friends though they are, the young women express divergent interests and values. Vicky craves stability in the form of a committed relationship with her long-term boyfriend Doug (Chris Messina). Cristina aspires toward something adventurous, something a little less predictable and perhaps a little more dangerous.
A chance encounter introduces both women to Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a celebrated artist with a scandalous past, who makes an indecent proposal that the two young women accept. Eventually they encounter Juan’s tempestuous former wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz, in an Academy Award-winning performance), with whom he can’t seem to live with or truly without. Together, the four spin an increasingly complex web of personal entanglements as the characters grapple with the wages of their individual desires.
Stories of young Americans seduced by sensual and decadent older Europeans have inspired artists since before Henry James took Isabel Archer across the Atlantic. Allen doesn’t hew so closely to the old formulas. The particulars of the various liaisons (of which there are many) are played for comedy, sometimes broad, occasionally bittersweet. Allen’s film is less a cautionary coming-of-age tale and more an extended meditation on how all vacations, even, perhaps especially, the gorgeous sun-drenched Spanish ones, must come to an end.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a small gem of a film — as deft, light, and delicious as a mild Spanish red, and just the thing to warm up to on a cold midwinter night.
The Tryon Fine Arts Center (34 Melrose Ave.) presents Vicky Cristina Barcelona as part of its “Destinations” film series that runs through May. Show time is Tuesday, Jan. 8, at 7pm. Doors open at 6:15pm for mingling and refreshments. Tickets are $6. The month closes with In Bruges, showing on January 29. For more information, call 828-859-8322 or see tryonarts.org.