Its Indiana Jones day here in Cannes. Check out Eugene’s blog if you want a play by play of the new Indiana Jones flick (or don’t if you want a spoiler-free screening).
Also, this is a photo taken of Penelope Cruz on the red carpet yesterday that is just absolutely stunning. The umbrellas in the back. The facial expressions of the photographers. That dress. That face. She is her generation’s Sophia Loren (the photo is also care of Eugene’s blog).
And I was lucky enough to catch her performance in Woody Allen‘s Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which was the sort of thing the phrase “tour-de-force” was created for. She plays Maria Elena, the suicidal ex-wife of Javier Bardem‘s character, who himself is creating moral/existential crisis for two young women and best friends – Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johannson). Vicky plays by the rules romantically, is engaged to a Wall Street bore, and has come to Barcelona for a summer to study Catalan culture. Cristina is a bit slutty, doesn’t know what she wants, and seems determined to keep it that way by choosing partners that put her in a cyclical path of lust-pain-confusion-lust-pain-confusion. She’s come to Barcelona to try and figure herself out.
The basic core of the film – these two women, their contrasting beliefs, and how Javier Bardem’s sexy beast brings them both to question them, is typical Allen territory. But there are many things about its execution that made me like it more than perhaps any Allen film since at least Match Point and maybe even Bullets Over Broadway. First, I found the characters atypically (for an Allen film, which often lately have been mismashes of actors and actresses that just seem like names were drawn out of hat – especially late 90s/early 00s examples) well-cast: Everyone, with the exception of maybe Scarlett (I’ll get to that), is fantastic here, and some scenes in particular have the ability to be either very sexy, very relatable, or very funny because all of the players – Bardem, Hall, Patricia Clarkson and especially Penelope Cruz, are so good. Which brings me to another reason:
The film is very sexy, very relatable, and very funny. Little skin is actually shown, but Bardem shows off a unique brand of sexiness in that he’s kind of a player, a bit of an asshole, but in one scene when he jointly offers both Vicky and Cristina an invite to a weekend island getaway (Vicky says no, Cristina says yes, of course), you want to have the morals of Vicky, but you know you’re carnally siding with Cristina. And even though the slut vs. saint thing is sort of a tired evaluation, Allen really fleshed out his script, and I found myself wrestling with the dual nature of my own, and people I know’s, Vicky/Cristina dichotomy on the walk home from the cinema. And as far as the funny goes, a lot of that is owed to Cruz, who is remarkable here. The Weinsteins would have to serious fuck up the marketing if Cruz doesn’t get an Oscar nod. You get excited every time she pops up, which often involves hilarious half English/half Spanish blow out tantrums. But Cruz also brings a real woman to Marie Elena, particularly when she calms down. When Cruz and Bardem’s characters take on the confused Cristina in a three-way relationship (including a very brief three-way sex scene), Allen gets a chance to take down the severities of their characters, and in Marie Elena, show a woman with confused aspirations, battling some serious demons, and desperately seeking attention. And in doing so Cruz makes it look so easy, continuing to supplant herself as an international actress with serious range, as opposed to her ill-fated journey into American garbage that made even myself (now a serious Cruz fan) question her capabilities as an actress.
The film’s few problems often come from Ms. Johannson. Her character gives a speech to her two lovers at one point in the film, arguing that she “has accepted she has no real talent.” She can appreciate art or film or literature, but she herself has nothing to bring to the table. This is what finally brings Marie-Elena over to Cristina’s side, insisting on being her muse as she takes on writing and photography. Except that speech still rings in your head, and you wonder: Whats so special about Cristina that these two – insane, yes – but incredibly interesting people take on someone so beige. And Johannson herself has the same problem in her performance. She barely gets by here, and the contrast between her and Bardem and Cruz’s capabilities is so notable when they are all on screen. She’s the only weak link of a very talented cast, but unfortunately that link is so intertwined (in usual Allen fashion) in the others that it puts a damper on everything else.
One other minor irritation is the narration, which is an anonymous voice detailing background information on the characters as well as their internal thoughts. What he’s saying is often quite funny and perceptive, but his voice does not suit the film. One person after the screening noted how it sounded like something from a Wes Anderson film. Which might suit that just fine, but here, its just not quite calming enough, which is what is necessary when being given information about the neurotic and intense characters its describing.
Overall, though, I’m very glad this was my first (and only?) Cannes 08 screening, and was pleasantly surprised that Mr. Allen, every few movies or so, proves he’s still capable of pulling this off. It also could be really marketable, more than any Allen movie in a longtime, and its nice to see a Fall release date (instead of the last few, all release end of December/January) to pamper its potential.