Woody Allen. Now there's a man that divides opinion. Like a certain brand of yeast-based bread-spread, people either love him or they hate him.
Or perhaps, more recently at least, it's a question of wavering in and out between the two states of affection: at first devouring his earlier work with great gusto, then developing a serious bout of over-indulgence, post-2004, with the dire Melinda and Melinda and the forgettable Match Point (starring his new, so-called, muse, Scarlett Johansson). With his latest venture Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Allen's certainly got the tastebuds tingling again, and if he hasn't for you yet, let me whet your appetite...
The fourth installment (although same may consider it his second since the latter were decided flops) of what is being hailed as Allen's European tour departs from the British Isles, winging its way over to Spain. Perhaps the transition from the distinctly grey and grimy world of London, to the glorious, cosmopolitan city of Barcelona has made Allen's outlook on life a little sunnier, sparking his return to the familiar theme of love. Naturally this will be no epic love story, but it sure is one hell of a love affair. And not just with Barcelona.
Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Johansson), two Americans touch down in the calles of the eponymous city, about to embark on a summer 'vacation'. For Vicky, a postgraduate, the experience is research for her thesis on Catalan identity (somewhat bizarrely since she doesn’t speak Spanish), whilst for Cristina, the dreamer of the pair, its an opportunity to wander into further unknown territory, in an attempt to 'discover' herself some more.
The difference between the two ladies in question could not be marked, from their hair colour down to their individual personalities - one almost questions their friendship - but pertinently in their opinions on affairs of the heart. Whilst Vicky is engaged and due to be married on her return to the States to the bland Doug (Chris Messina), Scarlett is as free in her giving of love as she is in her spirit.
So when hunky artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) makes an appearance, the audience is assured of some action. We don't have to wait long for the inevitable, as later at dinner Juan announces himself and his intentions of taking them away in his private plane, and having sex - with both of them. Dragged along, Vicky doesn't hold back in her disgust at having to leave behind the fine city for the charms of small-town Oviedo, nor her distrust of Juan (him and his tempestuous relationship with his ex-wife are the talk of the town).
However, when a spot of over-doing it on the Rioja sees Cristina confined to her hotel bed, alone, Vicky, enraptured by the sights of Oviedo and entranced by Juan, spends the night with him. The two of them choose not to talk about it once Cristina has recovered, leaving the (bedroom) door wide open for Juan to have his wish, to have the pair.
A passionate relationship with Cristina, who's quick to move in with this smooth operator, soon ensues, leaving Vicky in doubt over her engagement with Doug, their relationship easily comparable to that of her host's now failing marriage. This isn't helped by Doug's announcement, a seemingly romantic gesture (although in part it's a business trip), that he's coming to Barcelona and he wants to get married there.
It's not all steamy siestas for Cristina when Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), Juan's ex-wife, makes an appearance... and she ain't happy. Well, not until she sees a way to get in on the, ahem, action... Much has been written or said about Cruz's portrayal of the jilted lover (she won both a BAFTA and an Oscar for her performance), in my opinion owing to the script's allowing of her to speak her native-tongue - she's far superior in her Spanish texts.
Not a whole lot of praise has been heaped upon Allen's shoulders though. Okay, Vicky Cristina Barcelona isn't quite up there with Annie Hall and its cohort, but it's a rollicking good attempt. One just hopes that this trip to sunnier climes has refreshed Allen, and that his return to London in 2010 (a project is in the pipeline) returns him fully to wry, rather than woeful, form.
American writer/director/actor and one of the most distinctive talents in American film-making over the last three decades. Allen's successful early career as a stand-up comedian led him to start his directing life with a series of madcap, scattershot comedies that included Bananas, Sleeper and Love and Death. 1975's Oscar-winning Annie Hall was his first attempt to weave drama and comedy together, while 1979's Manhattan is considered by many critics to be Allen's masterpiece.
The 90s saw Allen keep up his one-film-a-year work-rate, the most notable being the fraught Husbands and Wives, gangster period piece Bullets Over Broadway, the savagely funny Deconstructing Harry and the under-rated Sweet and Lowdown. After a run of slight, average comedies, Allen returned to more ambitious territory with the split-story Melinda and Melinda, the dark London-set drama Match Point, romantic drama Vicky Cristina Barcelona, one of many of his films which won acting Oscars, and the unexpected late-on hits Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine. In any case, he remains an intelligent, always entertaining film-maker with an amazing back catalogue.