Barcelone - Passion & Ponderings

I've started on my quest to watch Oscar nominated movies - yes, after the bald, naked guy has been handed out, I move slowly, but I do get there - and started with Vicky Cristina Barcelona. I'm a big fan of Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem (and to be honest, I also like to drool at the latter) and I used to be very fond of Woody Allen films, although not so much in recent years, but more on that in a bit.

Two American women travel to Barcelona to spend two months there, one is engaged, intellectual and rather uptight, the other is a "free spirit" with all that this implies (and neither appear to be much beyond a ‘type’). They meet exotic painter (another one-dimensional character), he sleeps with one, then shacks up with the other, eventually joined by his exotic, hotblooded and slightlypsychotic ex-wife (and there's one more) and if you’ve watched a couple of Woody Allen films, you know what happens next. And that's my problem with this movie. I feel like I’ve watched most of it before. As lots of Woody Allen films, the movie is an exploration of the dichotomy between thoughts and feelings, intellect versus emotion, commitment versus passion and that's not a bad thing to explore. I just hated the way he did it.

Feelings and passion are represented by Barcelona, by the lush and heated countryside filmed in such a way that you can almost hear the cicadas and by the city itself with its breathtaking architecture, celebrating the exuberant sensuality of Gaudi (lovely photos here). How can you not forget about structure and living in your head surrounded by all this? Except Allen keeps preventing us from truly connecting emotionally to the dilemma and the experience by inserting layer after layer of distancing techniques. The soundtrack is a jaunty ditty often inappropriate to the action, the script - so tight, it squeaks - has characters speaking in an stilted and intellectual manner in which no one (except possibly Woody Allen) speaks, to such an extent that it's almost impossible not to superimpose a skinny, nerdy guy with glasses on all of them. And then there's the narrator, the narrator who’s supposed to connect the story - and who despite not being Woody Allen, sounds exactly like him - and who proceeds to ruin the moment every time you get even slightly sucked into the story by the beautiful cinematography and the mostly excellent acting that elevates one-dimensional characters types to almost fully fleshed-out individuals. I don't mind a narrator at times, but it can be a tortured device and this one is. Frequently completely unnecessary, it verges on a textbook case of why writers are taught the maxim "show, don't tell". I kept thinking of Clint Eastwood, another older legend who is still exploring the same themes he was 20 years ago, except he makes it new, interesting and absorbing, whereas Woody Allen seems increasingly caught in some sort of self-congratulatory, self-absorbed, masturbatory loop.

So why did I watch? Penelope Cruz won an Oscar for her role in the film and 48 minutes into the (97min) movie, we’re finally rewarded for our patience when she appears on screen and runs away with it. All of a sudden, the movie comes alive. Well, mostly. Not entirely, but she pulls this turgid, tortured thing into what it could have been, should have been and despite everything, I would recommend this movie solely to watch her and to a slightly lesser extent, Cruz and Bardem sparking off each other. The rest don't matter.

It should be said that the movie made me think, or to be more specific, it made me want to write an impassioned diatribe to the director about getting his head out of his arse and said arse off the therapist’s couch, but it did make me think and in that respect, I guess it's art of a sort. And what I was thinking about was this dichotomy, this contrast between thoughts and feelings, intellect and emotion and I wondered why artists keep coming back to this as if they were mutually exclusive, whether it’s not some antiquated leftover from the Middle Ages when they invented the idea of romantic love in an age where marriage and commitment were arranged. I wondered about the need to intellectualize feelings, to explain and analyze emotion, trying to bring reason into something that doesn't come from your mind and whether discussing feelings too much might not kill them. And I wondered why Allen and many others juxtapose commitment and passion as choices, as if commitment comes solely from the head and love exclusively from the heart, as if you have to give up one to get the other and I wonder why it’s so often assumed you can't have both.

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