Deborah Ross

Love, actually

Vicky Cristina Barcelona /> 12A, Nationwide

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Vicky Cristina Barcelona

12A, Nationwide

In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen’s latest film, a character asks in an opening, theme-setting scene: ‘Why is love so hard to define?’ which is daft, really, because as anyone who knows anything about cinema knows and has known since 1970: love means never having to say you’re sorry. What, did Ali MacGraw die for nothing? But here is Woody, and here is all his existential despair and, actually, it’s OK. This is a slight film, a minor Allen film, a bit of a footnote, but it’s warm and engaging and isn’t Matchpoint, Scoop or Cassandra’s Dream, which has to be a mercy. Yes, it’s safe to come out from behind the sofa unless, of course, you are also hiding from the bailiffs, in which case I probably wouldn’t chance it.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is about Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), two young Americans who spend a summer in Barcelona — who’d have thought it? — and have very different takes on love, which is good, as it wouldn’t be much of a film otherwise. Vicky is grounded, realistic and already engaged to a dull chap back home; a lawyer intent on whisking her off to a stifling bourgeois life in some place called Westchester. (Hey, are they having yet another go at the suburbs here? Stop bullying the suburbs!) Meanwhile, Cristina is sexually adventurous and believes that love isn’t love unless it involves great passion and, inevitably, some suffering (ask Ali, is all I’m saying). I’m not sure, actually, that Ms Johansson is the most naturally gifted of actresses — she looks merely puzzled for most of the time here — but she does have the most luscious, luminous Monroe-like sensuality; does have a look that screams ‘sex’. I wish I had a look that screamed ‘sex’ but, over the years, have been forced to admit I do not. That said, I think I was once groped on the Tube, but as I didn’t look round I can’t say for sure it wasn’t an umbrella. Alas, it was a very wet day.

Now, the cat among the pigeons? This is Javier Bardem — a dish of a Javier Bardem, now he’s lost the scary No Country for Old Men page-boy hairdo — as a celebrated Spanish painter who, one night, simply approaches the girls at a restaurant and invites them to come away with him for the weekend. He’s a seducer but not just any seducer. He’s an existential seducer. ‘Life is dull and painful so why not take your pleasure where you can?’ he says. He seduces one (Vicky), then the other (Cristina), who, next, enters into a ménage à trois with him and his homicidal, suicidal ex-wife, Maria Elena, played by Penélope Cruz with dark watchful eyes and the most fantastic, furious fizz. Ms Cruz also has a look that screams ‘sex’ — where was I when they were giving out the looks that screams ‘sex’? Rebecca Hall doesn’t have a look that screams ‘sex’, but that’s all right because, unless things have changed, she is still ‘one of the world’s most intriguing young talents’. You can’t have everything, love. 

The film has been billed as a comedy although as there is probably only the one proper, laugh-out-loud moment — towards the end, concerning a bullet wound — it’s not exactly up there with Allen’s early, New York films, the ones he is rather scornful about even though, as Peter Ustinov once noted, ‘Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.’ Still, this is a nicely relaxed, perfectly watchable film shot is such gorgeously glowing honey-lemon tones you may want to lick the screen. The cast all appear to be having an excellent time, which is always a joyful thing to see, although, in acting terms, the Spaniards probably do blow the Americans out of the water. Bardem, as the Latin lover who turns out not to fit the stereotype, is broodingly delicious while Cruz, playing the queen of mood swings, has a look that screams ‘mad’ as well as ‘sex’. (I only ever wanted ‘sex’.) However, what I would ask is this: do we really need another film about women seeking fulfilment through men? Or am I only saying that out of bitterness, because I’m pretty sure that, when it comes down to it, it was an umbrella. It did feel unusually damp. Actually, I’m now quite hoping it was.

OK, what does it all mean? Ah, yes. That is the question, and it’s a question that abounds. It’s as if Allen is physically shifting the question mark from one scene to the next. Once love is fulfilled, does it cease to be romantic? Is love the meaning of life? Should you follow your bliss, or not follow your bliss? Which is the truer tragedy: the love that explodes excitingly but then doesn’t last, or the love that lasts, but in Westchester? Does love mean never having to say you are sorry? Actually, we know the answer to that last one: yes. Or, if it isn’t, I’m not telling Ali. You do it.