It used to be said that Woody Allen's best movies were about "sex in the head," as if his characters simply had to relax and let it travel through their bodies. In Allen's affectionate, enlightening and, best of all, blissfully entertaining Vicky Cristina Barcelona, he shows how much residue sexual desire or experience leaves in the brain and gut and heart. It's a summery idyll: his most entertaining picture since Bullets Over Broadway (1994) or maybe Sweet and Lowdown (1999).
Scarlett Johansson plays Cristina, an artist looking for an art; Rebecca Hall plays Vicky, a grad student studying Catalan culture; and Javier Bardem plays Juan Antonio, a painter with romantic and critical reputations. He snags their attention at a gallery in Barcelona, where Cristina hopes to recover from a breakup and Vicky plans to spend her last months before marriage immersed in research for her master's thesis. Within hours, Juan Antonio is approaching them at their table and offering an indecent proposal: a weekend getaway to the pretty town of Oviedo, where they will sightsee and enjoy each other sexually. He is, however, a more serious and compassionate man than you think when he strikes that bargain.
Thus begins a series of romantic reversals and switchbacks that are initially routine and eventually anything but. It's no hair-raising stroke that Cristina, who's open to experience, gets sick in Juan Antonio's bedroom, and Vicky, who is skeptical and stable (and engaged to a solid, serious guy), appreciates the Spaniard's hidden sensitivity and spends a night with him. That's just the initial twist that sends this whole lighter-than-balsa-wood contraption flying through the sun-kissed Spanish air.
Vicky does marry her man; Cristina does live with Juan Antonio. But this movie is full of new beginnings, short of conclusions. From the start, Allen plays with a deck packed with hearts - all the actors achieve a sensuous relaxation that allows them to fuse thought and passion with ease. Then out of it jumps the wild card of Juan Antonio's ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), herself an artist, as well as (to borrow a phrase from Sam Peckinpah) the poet laureate of manic depression. Cruz is ardor incarnate, yet the picture's triumph is to show how Juan Antonio can't live with her or be fully happy without her.
In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, all the characters, including Judy (the divinely sane Patricia Clarkson), display hidden sides that make perfect sense when opened to the sun. The film triumphs because of its evenhanded tone. It doesn't inflate the importance of a fleeting menage a trois, a lesbian kiss or a brief assignation - and it doesn't diminish them, either.
It treats love as a waking dream that without the perfect chemistry can fade as easily as a bedtime story.
See a preview and more photos of Vicky Cristina Barcelona at baltimoresun.com/barcelona
Vicky Cristina Barcelona
(MGM/The Weinstein Company) Starring Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material and smoking. Time 97 minutes.