For Allen, that film was the measure of Bergman’s genius, and it reached aesthetic heights that he conceded his own films would never attain. Bergman, like his Knight, Allen observed, could not put off the ultimate checkmate nor would his great art secure for him a personal afterlife as intellectuals wanted to believe. Allen was sure that Bergman would barter each great film he had made for another year of life so he could go on making films.
Whether or not Woody Allen is right about what Bergman would choose, this seems very much like the bargain that he has made—if not with “death,” then with the demons of filmmaking. He has been surviving off the reputation of his extraordinary films of the past so that year after year he can go on making shallow movies that lack artistic ambition. (Those who enthused about his 2001 Match Point had apparently never seen Crimes and Misdemeanors.) Allen plagiarized his own film, changing the setting from New York to London. But just when we were prepared to write him off, Allen has come up with a film that has a touch of his old rueful comic genius and added something new.
In Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona, Allen has taken the kind of neurotic New Yorkers he knows so well, Vicky and Cristina, on vacation to Barcelona. The film is a sunlit tourist travelogue of the city of Gaudi’s architecture and Miró’s art. If you have ever visited Barcelona, you will appreciate with what superb taste the art nouveau sights of that remarkable city have been selected and the camera angles devised. Allen described Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona as his love letter to Barcelona, but if love is a gift, then like all of his “loves,” this one got a little complicated. The Spanish production company, with Allen’s help, convinced city officials to subsidize 10% of the film’s budget and to shut down some of the busiest streets for the filming—this to the chagrin of the citizenry who never got anything resembling their idea of a love letter.
It is not just Allen’s artful cinematic depiction of Barcelona that makes this film worth watching. Allen’s script is engrossing, and marvelous actors give convincing performances. One of the striking features of the film is that none of the actors is doing an obvious impersonation of Woody Allen himself. Since all of Allen’s best scripts seem to be an extension of his personal psychoanalytic introspections, one might suppose that parts of his psyche are hiding in each of the characters. Seen from that perspective, this charming entertainment takes on deeper and lasting interest for psychiatrists who value psychodynamic understanding.
Cristina is played by Scarlett Johansson for whom this is her third Woody Allen film. Ever since the public scandal with Mia Farrow about Soon-Yi Previn who is now Allen’s wife and 35 years younger than he, it is almost impossible for his devotees not to imagine that something is going on between Woody Allen and any young actress who works with him—regardless of the truth. Indeed, when one looks at his best films, such as Crimes and Misdemeanors or Manhattan, one cringes at the realization that he was telling us even more than we understood at the time about his relations with underage females. On the surface, these films show us that our hero Woody Allen wanted to enjoy innocent childhood pleasures and we could share in his pleasure. What we cannot help seeing in hindsight is the pedophilic impulse that sought fulfillment—unsettling to even his most devoted admirers. Fortunately, Scarlett Johansson does not seem to be Allen’s latest victim and her Cristina is not a mindless, objectified female of desire. The script explores her subjectivity, and in his slightly mocking style, Allen empathizes with Cristina and in that process perhaps reveals something of his own erotic longings for a transformative love that might fulfill his own life.
In a rare 2005 interview with Vanity Fair, as he approached his 70th birthday, Allen said his marriage to Soon-Yi had “a paternal feeling to it” and “works like magic.” But it sounded a lot like Allen has given up the struggle to achieve the magic of reciprocal love and settled for a manageable relationship. That kind of struggle and inevitable compromise is what this film is about, and it plays out in the characters of Vicky and Cristina.