Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Neurotic Libertine: Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Polyamory

Originally published at SpoutBlog:

Neurotic Libertine: Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Polyamory

Queen of Bad Sex Catherine Breillat could learn a thing or two from Woody Allen. Not only is his latest celluloid psychotherapy session “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” a phenomenal work of intellectual porn, but it also happens to contain one of the sexiest, most hysterical and poignant portrayals of polyamory to come along in a long, long time. Allen actually gets that those of us who choose to live outside of hetero monogamy are not voracious sex addicts lacking in morality – on the contrary, we simply abide by a different set of desires and ethics than that of the mainstream.

Watching the sexual roundelay involving Diane Keaton/Mia Farrow substitute muse Scarlett Johansson and Allen stand-in Rebecca Hall as the American tourists Cristina and Vicky, who become sucked into the fiery passionate and oftentimes downright dangerous world of Barcelona artists Juan Antonio and his ex-wife Maria Elena, played by Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz (for my money the two sexiest European stars to grace the screen since Mastroianni and Sophia Loren), I realized it was the first time I’d ever wanted to jerk off to a Woody Allen film. This is the master of neuroses on Viagra. Spain seems to have reinvigorated Allen, and it’s a joyous thrill to behold. Simply put, the director’s upped the endorphin factor, leaving me hot and bothered and hysterically laughing all at the same time.

That “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” could be this incredibly arousing and simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny is a testament to how far Allen has grown as a filmmaker in recent years. Unlike gloom-and-doom Breillat, Allen suddenly has discovered that comedy can be lusciously sexy – he’s finally taken some big risks, pushed himself beyond preconceived notions and his own comfort zone, much like his script forces his protagonist tourists to do.

Casting Bardem and Cruz is the smartest move he’s made since using breezily sexy Keaton. And by employing these Almodovar darlings, along with the hot tamale director’s DP Javier Aguirresarobe (“Talk To Her”), production designer Alain Bainee (“Kika”) and costume designer Sonia Grande (the upcoming “Broken Embraces”), Allen has managed to create a quintessential “Woody Allen film” sprinkled with Pedro spice. The film’s pacing itself is like sex, from slow foreplay to passionate fucking to basking in the afterglow of getting what you wanted (for now). The opening credits accompanied by a playful female voice singing an addictive tune like a siren’s call (Giulia y Los Tellarini’s “Barcelona”) and the sultry Spanish guitar, Barcelona’s romance captured in languid camerawork, images of breathtaking architecture and of the nighttime cafes enveloped by the fever heat of late summer––all of these elements are as perfectly composed as any of Allen’s mash notes to Manhattan, but unlike that film, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” emits a visceral sensuality from beginning to end.

Add to this an accurate portrait of a relationship (Maria Elena and Juan Antonio’s) turning from creative passion into Frankenstein’s Monster, and Allen’s film approaches existential thriller. As Juan Antonio coolly seduces and Maria Elena sharply sizzles they devour one another with primal intensity, and transform into a volatile chemical equation. In fact the idea of “sex as chemistry” is alluded to by Juan Antonio, who claims Cristina as the missing ingredient that will serve as both buffer and lover for the couple. Juan Antonio’s allure is his no bullshit candidness; not a fake macho forwardness but a vulnerable, heart-on-sleeve directness. His frankness is what makes him so hot. And not only is he fully aware of the power of honesty, but he knows how to wield it, shamelessly shoving that appeal into the faces of Vicky and Cristina, and the audience’s.

The scene in which he first meets the twenty-something tourists, called over to their table by Cristina’s flirting eyes, is downright hilarious. After an all too brief introduction, Juan Antonio (in his deadpan serious manner, as if offering to buy the next round of drinks) says he will take the women to see his favorite sculpture in the Asturian town of Oviedo – requiring a quick plane ride followed by a weekend stay in which they will eat and drink fine food and wine, then all make love together. (Oh, and they’re leaving in an hour by the way.)

But the same element that makes this scene so laugh-out-loud funny––Bardem’s impeccable comic timing/Juan Antonio’s straightforward presumptuousness––is also what makes the scene so fucking sexy. What innocent abroad wouldn’t want to have her brains fucked out by a hot and horny sex bomb offering a once in a lifetime adventure? (I for one most assuredly would have responded, “We’re leaving in an hour? Why the long wait?”) And indeed, once in Oviedo Cristina agrees to join Juan Antonio in his room – after he’s assented to her one condition of “you’ll have to seduce me.”

Leaning against the wall his shirt just barely unbuttoned, Juan Antonio lazily opens the door for Cristina with one hand while cradling a glass of wine in the other. When she says she’s just there for a quick drink and then she’s going to leave, he abruptly and candidly asks her if she’d acted in the short film she’d written and directed. Puzzled, she replies that she did. His response, “I hope you were more convincing in that short film,” is both funny and wildly hot because he’s cut to the core of Cristina’s desire with a Zorro swipe, undressed her with one line.

And even while Allen employs the twin beauties of Barcelona’s art and its environment as seductive characters––Gaudi’s architecture represents both Vicky’s infatuation (she was drawn to Barcelona after falling in love with his Sagrada Familia Church) and Maria Elena’s mantra of “only unfulfilled love is truly romantic” (Gaudi’s life’s work was this unfinished church)––he also remains hyper-attentive to the nuances within the flesh-and-blood characters he’s created. Allen is both respectful and nonjudgmental of every form sex and love may take. As Bardem observes in the press notes, “I think there are different aspects of love…Love is as different as the people who feel it. I’d say I guess the movie wants to show some of those relationships with love in different people, different minds.”

Whether it’s Vicky and her fiancĂ©e, Juan Antonio and Maria Elena, Juan Antonio and Cristina, Juan Antonio and Vicky, or even Juan Antonio, Maria Elena and Cristina––Allen patiently listens to his characters, allows for open minded discovery, like a skilled documentary filmmaker coaxing interviewees. Refreshingly, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” even concludes on the very adult notion that there is no such thing as a “right” way to love. As Allen himself is quoted, “Some things work for some people in some situations. One can’t preconceive these things and one has to be more flexible when it comes to love.” Claro que si!

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