The American Society of Cinematographers

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DVD Playback
Raging Bull
Vicky Cristina Barce
ASC Close-Up
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
1.85:1 (enhanced for 16X9 televisions)
Dolby Digital 3.0
The Weinstein Company Home Entertainment/Genius Products, $28.95

Woody Allen has written and directed delightful light comedies (Manhattan Murder Mystery, Everyone Says I Love You) and affecting dramas dealing with profound questions of morality (Crimes and Misdemeanors, Match Point), but rarely has he fused the two impulses as effectively as in his most recent movie, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. On the surface a whimsical romance and travelogue, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is at heart one of Allen’s most melancholy films, a meditation on the difficulties of passionate love in a pragmatic world. The story is reminiscent of François Truffaut or Eric Rohmer: two young American women, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), spend the summer in Barcelona and meet a dashing Spanish artist, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). Vicky is stable and engaged, and Cristina is a free spirit, but both women find themselves coming under Juan Antonio’s spell — and under that of his extremely volatile ex-wife, Maria Elena.

A series of sexual couplings (and threesomes) commence, though the film is more verbal than physical in its dramatization of the heart’s complexities. As one would expect from Allen, the dialogue is consistently witty and insightful as the characters ponder the ramifications of their feelings for one another — Vicky is forced to deal with the fact she has more passion for Juan Antonio than for her new husband; Juan Antonio is forced to deal with the truth about himself and his ex-wife, and Cristina is forced to deal with the limitations of her own free-spiritedness. A running voice-over by an omniscient narrator provides further commentary and gives the movie the light, charming tone of a fairytale.

The sense of romance and magic is reinforced by the most gorgeous locations in any Allen film to date and by their sumptuous presentation on screen by Spanish director of photography Javier Aguirresarobe. Allen has a longstanding practice of working with some of the most accomplished cinematographers in the world, having partnered with Gordon Willis, ASC; Sven Nykvist, ASC, and Carlo Di Palma, AIC, among others.  Vicky Cristina Barcelona marks his first collaboration with Aguirresarobe, a veteran with 80 films on his resume and whose talent has been utilized by major directors, including Pedro Almodovar and Victor Erice (Aguirresarobe’s most popular English-language credit is the atmospheric ghost story The Others). The cinematographer bathes Barcelona in golden light that makes nearly any time of day seem like a magic hour, and he is aided by the inherent beauty of the locations themselves. Allen injects a clever conceit into his script: Juan Antonio constantly volunteers to show his American guests the local sights, which justifies Allen and Aguirresarobe’s decision to linger on their visual splendor.

Aguirresarobe is a master of portraiture as well as landscape, and the film is packed with elegantly lit faces (There are far more close-ups than is typical for an Allen film.) that allow the viewer to fall in love and lust with the characters just as they do with each other. The result is one of Allen’s most visually striking productions although all the romantic trappings cloak a film that is, in its own way, as pessimistic as Match Point.  For in the end Vicky Cristina Barcelona is not about true love but about the impossibility of true love — every relationship in the movie (including those of supporting characters like the acquaintances played by Patricia Clarkson and Kevin Dunn) lacks something profound. There is either passion but no stability (Juan Antonio and Maria Elena), stability but no passion (Vicky and her husband) or an inability to know one’s self and, therefore, to be content in a relationship (Cristina). Over the course of the film, the characters grow wiser but not happier, and, ultimately, Aguirresarobe’s fantasy vision of Catalonia serves as an ironic counterpoint to the brutal emotional reality of the characters’ lives.     

The DVD of Vicky Cristina Barcelona showcases Aguirresarobe’s honey palette well although the skin tones are occasionally more orange than they were in the theatrical-release prints. Aguirresarobe’s images are lit with care and precision yet give off an illusion of French New Wave-esque effortlessness (a juxtaposition in keeping with the film’s use of a breezy tone to express harsh truths), and the density and tonal range of the cinematography are often stunning on the disc’s transfer. The film’s technical work is impressive at every level, and the clarity and simplicity of the sound mix is impeccably preserved in the 3.0 mix. The dialogue in the center channel has been recorded and mixed with particular subtlety — it constantly reflects the physical space in which the characters find themselves, but never in a distracting or self-conscious manner, and the Spanish guitar music that permeates the soundtrack sounds terrific without overpowering the dialogue and ambient sounds. Unfortunately, as is usually the case with Allen DVDs, there are no extra features.

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