Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are two American students who arrive in Spain one summer to spend time in Barcelona, seeing the sights and catching up on their studies. They settle at the house of Vicky's relative Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and her husband, who is delighted to have someone new around the place, and begin their planning to view as many of the notable art exhibits and architectural attractions as they can. But while at new gallery show, the girls notice a man there they mistake for the artist; he is an artist, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), and later that evening he approaches them...
Another of writer and director Woody Allen's European movies, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (there's a lazy title!) was judged to be one of his frequent returns to form that dotted his later work - certainly it was more satisfying than his previous two films to star Scarlett Johansson, his muse of the early twenty-first century. A relationships drama that played out in the romantic lives of a group of diverse people, it maps out what could be termed a "general dissatisfaction with everything" in Allen's pessimistic manner as you feel that they are never going to be entirely happy now they have had a taste of something other than what they're used to, for which we can blame cheap air travel.
Well, possibly, as if Vicky and Cristina hadn't been able to afford the flight over to Spain and had spent their summer at home, those emotions that were stirred and will not now go away might have lain dormant. Another thing we can blame is Juan Antonio, who when he goes over to the girls has a proposition for them: accompany him to a picturesque town some way out of Barcelona, where they can drink in the sights, have a nice meal, and round off the day with a spot of lovemaking. Wait - what? Vicky is shocked at how forward this artist is and turns him down, but Cristina is intrigued and agrees to go.
Not wishing to be left behind, Vicky follows too, but the day does not quite turn out the way they expect as while they do visit the attractions, Cristina's seduction is foiled when she gets food poisoning. However, as she lies in bed recuperating, Juan Antonio and Vicky spend the next day together and they do indeed end up in bed, a life-altering experience for her if not quite so much for him. She is engaged to a rich young businessman and thought she had her future planned out, but one of the film's themes is how artistic types can be so much more exciting than someone who has a boring office job and plays golf in his spare time, no matter how much security they can offer.
Of course, that excitement can be dangerous, as we see when Juan Antonio's ex-wife Maria Elena enters the frame, played by Penélope Cruz as another of those actresses whom Allen has directed to an Oscar. She doesn't turn up until the film is over halfway finished, but is so full of life that you wonder where she has been as she reclaims her ex from Cristina, who was content living bohemian existence with him, then ends up seducing Cristina as well, creating a three-way relationship. Vicky is not-so-secretly envious of this arrangement, and the other's grass is always greener moral goes into effect where each of the characters wants another, but can never settle on a way to make this work out. Vicky admits she thinks Cristina is brave, and perhaps she is, as she is the only one to admit that she wants something different, but on the note this ends on you wonder if this will ever be a possiblity for her - or her friends. Allen never allows this to descend into soap opera, and the restless needing of the characters leaves you oddly ill-at-ease knowing that from now on Vicky will be dissatisfied with stability and Cristina dissatisfied with freedom.
[Optimum's Region 2 DVD has nothing but a trailer as an extra as is often the case with Allen's films, but even his casual fans are recommended to check this out.]
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.