Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

13 September 2008

New Allen; Same as the Old Allen?

Many have remarked that Interiors—one of my favorite Woody Allen movies—is Allen's Bergman movie. So totally is Interiors a tribute, a loving homage, to Bergman, that it is impossible not to see Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Allen's newest feature, as a tribute to a man who is clearly one of Allen's new favorite filmmakers.

For Vicky Cristina Barcelona is obviously a loving homage to that master of camp, that brilliant genius of storytelling: Pedro Almodóvar. Allen has adopted a kind of feeling of Almodóvar for his newest film, and the moments when this Almodóvage shine through Allen's script are the film's best.

I liked Vicky Cristina Barcelona quite a bit, but I also feel the same way about it that I felt about Allen's other 2008 feature. The problem, see, is that Allen still has really great stories to tell, he just isn't so great at telling the stories anymore. As such, Vicky Cristina Barcelona knows a lot about human nature, love, relationships, desperation, and passion. In this way it is a smart, even wise, film from an aging, brilliant director. But most of Allen's formal devices don't work well at all. The entirety of the film, for instance, is framed by a narrator telling the film's audience all about the characters and their weaknesses and foibles. The benefits of this are manifold: the exposition is easily, cleverly delivered, and is immediately dispensed with; conflicts are created without dialogue; glances and gestures become immediately much more meaningful. But the narration sacrifices something incredibly important. We know the characters extremely well from the beginning of the film due to the narrator's voice, but he (it's a man's voice) also creates a distance between us and the characters. So we become better than them, smarter than them. We know their weaknesses and so we don't need to discover them. This gives the whole film a cynical, rather glib air, and our affection for the characters suffers for it.

One more thing needs to be said about Vicky Cristina Barcelona, though, and that is that I must tell you that Penélope Cruz is a revelation. I can't remember her sexier or funnier or more fabulous, even in an Almodóvar film. I think that may be because Almodóvar's films usually have several fabulous, sexy, funny women in them, and Allen's movie has only Miss Cruz. As it is, Allen has written Penélope Cruz one of her best roles ever, and easily her best English-speaking role. Cruz is a firestorm: a wicked, fantastic, cruel creature who destroys everything she touches but is incredibly vulnerable and sad. It's a great performance in a film that, the more she is on-screen, seems to exist only to showcase her. Cruz takes over this movie. She is the only thing anyone will be talking about when they leave this movie. It's a tour-de-force, not to be missed, and I hope she gets nominated for an Oscar. She's that great.