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Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Woody Allen's new comedy, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, puts me in mind of Titian's early masterpiece, Sacred and Profane Love. Forget the "sacred" and "profane," parts, though. It's the ladies themselves. To the left sits Vicky (Rebecca Hall), while on the right stands Cristina (Scarlett Johannson). In the film, Ms Hall never wears anything quite so nice as Sacred Love's outfit, and we never see as much of Ms Johansson as Titian shows us of Profane Love, but you get the picture. Well, you might get it better if we changed the name of Titian's canvas to Bourgeois and Bohemian Love. Either way, nobody finds complete contentment here below.

In today's movies, Barcelona is the new New York. It's where film characters go for reinvention — or at least for a life-affirming holiday from regular life. As an inveterate New Yorker on sabbatical, however, Mr Allen appears unbedazzled. Even if they look healthier and less scruffy in Spain than they do in Manhattan, artists are artists: neurotic, unstable, and narcissistic. They fight all the time with their former spouses, sometimes with deadly force. And they are always terrible snobs. When Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz) teases Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) for having involved himself with a couple of turistas Americanas, she could be a Lower East Sider sneering at her boyfriend's fling with some Jersey girls.

Vicky, the bourgeoise, and Cristina, the Bohemian, are old friends spending the summer in Spain, guests of an old family friend of Vicky's (Patricia Clarkson). When Vicky goes back home, she'll marry Doug (Chris Messina), a Wall Street type whose Puritanical ideas about love are well-matched by his Stewartical interest in having the right kind of tennis pro. (A taste for tennis remains one of Mr Allen's signature hallmarks of a male character's boorishness.) He's the right man for Vicky, but that's just the problem. Juan Antonio is definitely not the right man for Vicky. When he stares into her eyes at their dinner à deux, his steady, bedroom-eyed gaze is almost terrifying, and we might as well be watching a vampire horror film, not a romantic comedy. Vicky is helpless — and, like a vampire, she will never be the same.

Whether or not she has already been bitten by a vampire, Cristina has totally been there and done the whole Juan Antonio thing before. "I'll come to your room," she warns him, "but you'll have to seduce me." In the event, her ulcer acts up, but she atones by moving in with Juan Antonio later — and sticking around after Juan Antonio brings Maria Elena home (she has tried to kill herself in a bus station). The two Spaniards not only form a happily polymorphic trio with Cristina but coax her into being an accomplished photographer as well. It is never clear what it is about this arrangement that palls for Cristina, but when she leaves the studio, the ex-spouses find that they can't stand each other, either — and presently the field is cleared for Juan Antonio to make another move on Vicky. This time, however, Maria Elena provides the ulcer.

The American friends leave Barcelona together in a mood more bitter (at least, in Vicky's case) than sweet: the screen goes dark as they walk toward their plane, looking quite a bit less tickled than they did when they arrived. For those who are tempted to ask what Mr Allen is trying to tell us, I would point to the savagely depressing romances of his idol, Ingmar Bergman. Vicky Cristina Barcelona can be seen as, say, Hour of the Wolf, remade by the late master's scampish, raspberry-prone disciple. Guns go off, but no one is killed, and there is only so much existential malaise that an American girl's face can carry.

Where Bergman's films always seem to be daring us to take the full measure of his principal character's despair, Vicky Cristina Barcelona does just the opposite, by presenting dramatic situations that exceed the characters' capacity for upset. This is the dark lining of Woody Allen's humor: if not exactly ridiculous, we're a risible lot, unworthy of our tragic forebears. At the same time, maybe it's good that we're not killing ourselves. Life is good — or at least interesting. Mr Allen's transmits a stream of little shocks that rouse us the fact that we care about what's going on, at least enough to see what will happen tomorrow. My favorite instance of caring comes with Maria Elena's surprising annoucement that she has searched Cristina's luggage. Cristina is shocked; she certainly cares. But then so does Maria Elena. Nutty though she be, she wants to know all about her rival (as Cristina then is) for Juan Antonio's affection. Mr Allen makes us see the invasion of Cristina's privacy from both perspectives. There is nothing depressive about the encounter; we're laughing too hard.

Is this Mr Allen's first bi-lingual movie? If so, it is an unwilling one. Juan Antonio constantly exhorts Maria Elena to speak English in his house while Cristina is a guest there; he says this so often, in fact, that I began to substitute "the audience" for "Cristina." Maria Elena remains irrepressibly Hispanophone, spouting streams of her native language as if it were some sort of romantic Yiddish. Perhaps the funniest scene in the movie is about speaking foreign languages. Maria Elena grills Cristina about why she doesn't speak Spanish. Cristina says  that she studied Chinese in school — because she thought it was beautiful. (This is where sophisticated audiences will begin smiling.) Maria Elena taunts Cristina: say something. Eventually, Cristina comes out with just about the lamest "ni hao ma" that has ever been uttered on screen. It doesn't even sound like a question! In immediate Spanish, Maria Elena immediately barks her opinion: Cristina sounds hideous. I thought the whole discussion quite naturally hilarious. But then, as a New Yorker, I love the idea of incomprehensible insults. (August 2008)

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