Among the most cherished bits of wisdom my father bestowed upon me when I first started dating was this: "Beware the new relationship high."
There's nothing like a new relationship. The period of courting, seducing, and beginning a new romance are so exhilarating because they're based on dreams. You're living in the fantasy world of how great life's going to be with this new person. This vision of what could be and the thrill of the new can act to blind someone to the reality of an already-existing great relationship.
"Vicky Cristina Barcelona," this year's Woody Allen film, explores this idea, one of the thematic staples of the Woodman's oeuvre.
The film features the summer adventure of Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson in her third Wood film.) The two young women are staying with Vicky's relatives Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and Mark (Kevin Dunn) in the gorgeous Catalonian region of Spain. The two friends approach the romantic world from opposite perspectives. Vicky is more traditional. She has a successful fiancée (Chris Messina) and a conventional life planned. Cristina is more spontaneous and promiscuous.
So when the pair is invited on a romantic getaway by seductive painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) the reactions are predictable. Cristina is intrigued and excited while the more conservative Vicky is offended by the Spaniard's confident advances. Despite her misgivings Vicky agrees on the trip, thus beginning a strange love triangle as both women are drawn to Juan Antonio over the course of the summer. Things grow more complicated when the artist's emotionally-unstable ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) re-enters the picture to transform the triangle into a square. Then throw in Vicky's fiancée into the mix once he joins her in Barcelona. The whole affair is leant a literary, almost short story quality by narrator Christopher Evan Welch.
Allen is a machine gun of a filmmaker. The 72-year-old has been cranking out a film a year for the past three decades. Shoot enough bullets and a few of them will probably hit the target to one degree or another. Allen tends to get his bulls eye with every third to fifth film. The last picture of his at this level was 2005's "Match Point." Before that it was 1999's "Sweet and Lowdown," proceeded by 1995's "Mighty Aphrodite," proceeded by 1989's "Crimes and Misdemeanors," proceeded by... well you get the pattern. The point is that "Vicky Cristina" is one of the Allen films that non-Allen fans need to see and will probably enjoy.
It's just the right blend of laughs, drama, sexiness, and intellectualism. The dialogue and situations are often very funny. Bardem in particular as Juan Antonio prompts many sparks when his open sexuality clashes with Vicky. The film only solidifies Bardem's place at the top of the world's actors. He's as seductive in "Vicky Cristina" as he is sociopathic in "No Country for Old Men." The injection of Cruz's lively performance midway through the film as Juan Antonio's violent ex makes the picture all the more vibrant.
There's also a certain formal, almost artificial quality to "Vicky Cristina Barcelona." The acting abandons the more naturalistic style of most pictures in favor of a tone of dialogue akin to a play. It's not that they're over-acting or acting poorly, it's just clear that they're acting. Allen has a background as a playwright and his newest film could be very easily adapted for the stage. The literary narrator enhances this quality.
What makes the movie strikingly cinematic, though, is its setting in Spain. Just as New York City was such a central aspect of Allen's earlier films, the beauty of Barcelona and its accompanying Spanish culture also play as characters. Hence the locale's appropriate inclusion in the title.
Ultimately, though, despite the great sights, acting, dialogue, and plot, the film's strength comes in the challenging nature of its ideas. If Allen is anything then he's a pessimist. He can certainly do silly comedies but when he gets serious you're in for a darker look at life. So many films about relationships show only the new relationship high. The film is about two people finding each other and living happily ever after. "Vicky Cristina" shows the reality: you're not likely to stay "in love" with your spouse forever. You may love them, but you're not "in love" with them. Eventually everyone comes down off their new relationship high. And there is a tragedy in this that some people can never accept. So they just go from person to person, moving on once the new relationship high has passed. Yet this kind of existence seems almost equally tragic.
What one must eventually realize is that once the high has passed the relationship can evolve into something far more transcendent. And that initial excitement isn't gone forever, you just have to work a little to get it back.