Filtered through city landscapes or the imaginative trips of time travel, Woody Allen’s pitch has been consistent:
Nerdy Jewish New Yorker talks beautiful women into bed with angst-ridden intellectual humour.
This is a film-maker for whom the word ‘schtick’ was invented. Woody owns naive narration, conspicuous cultural consumption, urbane conversation, serial infidelity- hell, even a whole musical genre.
No surprise then that looming over him has been a question worthy of a brace of sessions on his own therapist’s couch:
‘I keep having these dreams that I get old and I can’t star in my movies. How will they work? What about the women? Will I have to hand them over like sacrificial lambs? I’m feeling very anxious.’
Of course it’s been a nightmare realized and Allen movies have since struggled to retain charm in their creator’s absence.
VCB is no exception and though it might seem as though he’s handing his conquests to Javier Bardem, in fact, he keeps a firm grip on them from behind the camera, giving new meaning to the phrase ‘remote control’.
Occasionally the characters show signs of independent life but generally they are little more than ventriloquist dummies, such is the permeating stench of Allen.
(Although, thank the Lord, he’s stopped mutilating actors into doing impersonations of himself: is it possible to recall Kenneth Branagh in Celebrity without feeling somehow damaged?)
It makes him voyeur of his own movies and his audience voyeurs of him. He thinks he’s making emotional porn with clothes on. Instead we’re getting him as naked as the day he was born.
In VCB Vicky is his intellect and the distillation of societal mores.
The object of his desire, Cristina, is his heart: searching, experimental and ultimately dissatisfied.
Juan Antonio is the handsome artist he never was, Juan’s relationship with Maria-Elena a fantasy realized: the apotheosis of romantic love made possible by the introduction of a.n.other.
Woody knows that if combustible passion were sustained it would contradict itself and yet he is unwilling to settle for anything less.
In Juan Antonio and Maria-Elena’s relationship with Cristina he creates an attractive solution, the ‘missing ingredient’ through which to channel overwhelming emotional and physical desire.
But even this construct has a shelf-life, Woody now too jaded or too wise to yield completely to his ideal.
No love will ever be enough for him probably because he fears he will never be enough for love.
Unsurprisingly for a man who craves the stimulation of cities- a man given to explication and humour and analysis- his greatest fear is to be bored, his greatest desire to be satisfied.
But therein lies his problem, for he suspects that to be satisfied is to be bored or, worse, boring- the lowest of all life-forms.
The result is a restless soul and a film without a satisfactory ending: a compelling relationship that can’t survive, a dull one that does and a lost soul masquerading as a free spirit.
The performances are solid: Javier Bardem grounds his character in earthy magnetism.
Rebecca Hall has the brainy credentials to nail Vicky but remains too gangly schoolgirl to believably inspire flames of desire.
Scarlett Johansson, meanwhile, has a contemplative dreaminess that sells her convincingly as a wannabe bohemian artist and is, for my money, bar none the most sexually attractive starlet of her generation; there are scenes when she and the lense need to get a room.
Penelope Cruz is justly lauded as a rabid nutter although one suspects it’s not that much of a stretch. In this movie she accomplishes the unlikely feat of contextualizing her ex, Tom Cruise: Katie Holmes flosses every night, Scientology has structure; suddenly he makes sense!
Her unfeasible glamour renders her almost cartoonish. You want to see her photographed. You enjoy her flipping out. You even like her smoking. Most of all you fancy her for breakfast- over easy with Scarlett on top.
And this is why Woody Allen is so successful. He makes movies you want to watch about people you want or want to be. They are vivid, engaging, and tap into the emotional dilemmas that drive us all.
But with this one he resembles a man who is retreating to his artistic death bed, a smile playing on his lips at the delights of life, outlasted by a frown on his forehead at its disappointments.