Reviewed by Simon Sweetman

WOODY ALLEN. Any review of one of his films must reference at least three from his filmography. I reckon I will mention twice that many. Let’s see...

I liked this film. I am a fan of Allen and have seen all of his films. That doesn’t mean that I like all of his films – but, if this makes sense, I appreciate them all. I think it’s important we have someone out there in cinema-land fighting the good fight in the way that Allen does. He makes films first and foremost for himself and with time that has come to mean that he considers his audience as well; so long as his audience laughs at and ponders the same things that he does. In the same way that if you watch enough Curb Your Enthusiasm you will end up finding yourself in your own real-life Larry David situations, if you watch enough Woody Allen movies (especially in a concentrated period) you will start to think like him. No wonder he finds it so easy to get substitute actors talking with his rhythms when he chooses to spend a whole film behind the camera.

In Vicky Christina Barcelona, Allen’s third film on the trot to feature Scarlett Johansson, he is behind the camera and even has Sco-Jo’s character reacting in a stammering Allen-esque flap at one point.

Allen has long been fascinated with human relationships – it’s the theme that features in all of his movies (yes, even the “early, funny ones”) – but whereas in, say, Deconstructing Harry it was about the auteur in the middle of everyone else’s lives, considering himself more important than his creations, here it is the auteur stepping back, lensing the dramatic tension, Allen doesn’t even provide the narration, just the focus.

He’s taken a step back before of course, making it about someone else, projecting his worldview on to a female character (Alice) and he’s been subtler in his study of other people’s psychology (Interiors) but Vicky Christina Barcelona arrives, with Scarlett’s pout and Penelope Cruz’s mad-dog Latin delivery, when Allen’s movies are acceptable again to the mainstream.

It’s been a long time since that scandal of him hooking up with his step-daughter. And Match Point was liked by people who didn’t even know it was a Woody Allen film. Also, where Scoop was a return to the mark-your-place-with-this comedy of The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion, this film at least manages to set itself in a version of the real world. A cinema reality that owes as much to Before Sunrise and Holy Smoke as it does anything Allen has made, but a real world nonetheless.

There’s also the allure, beyond Scarlett and Penelope having a snog, of this film being set off shore; Allen’s New York feeling as distant currently as his association with Mia Farrow.

Right, so, to the film. Scarlett’s character is Christina and her friend is Vicky (Rebecca Hall). They travel to Barcelona (it’s a less cryptic title than you’d at first think).

Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem, about as far from his No Country for Old Men role as you could get) is the mystery man that immediately intrigues one of the women and is less instantly impressive to the other.

From there it is about impulses, and while Vicky fights hers and Christina assumes that her instincts will eventually gather enough emotional knowledge to guide her, Juan Antonio introduces his former wife, Maria Elena (Cruz). He and her still love each other but it’s a stroppy love that cannot exist with just the two of them gnawing at each other like rats.

Maria Elena’s fiery passion is subdued seeing Antonio with other women – she likes it; he likes her more for it.

From there it becomes a ménage that is square-sided; grey areas abound. The moral question seems to be answered with the logic that all of the players have some sense of awareness. But matters of the heart exist outside of what matters in the mind.

It’s a sharp film with some humour and beautiful scenery.

I just can’t get super excited about it because Allen has made a lot of films better than this. I’d take Hannah and Her Sisters or Manhattan over this any day. And part of me feels like there’s a certain kudos that Allen is receiving now that he’s not controversial in the news and now that he’s coasting with his movies again, dropping out his usual one a year but not ruffling feathers.

This film is better than Scoop, not as good as Match Point and probably sits right in the middle of Woody’s filmography to date, which, when you remind yourself includes every name I’ve dropped in this rant and Zelig, The Purple Rose Of Cairo, The Sweet And Lowdown, Sleeper, Bananas, Crimes And Misdemeanors, Shadows & Fog, Manhattan Murder Mystery and a little Oscar winner called Annie Hall, is no mean feat.

Simon Sweetman’s ‘notes’ continue as a regular fixture on The Lumière Reader throughout 2009.