Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) **

Labouring under one of his most overt give-up titles, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is  a slightly unusual but smoothly accomplished Woody Allen trifle, and his third film with Scarlett Johansson.
They seem to have a genuine two-way appreciation of each other's talents, so her Cristina comes alive a little more solidly than your average twenty year old girl written by a seventy year old man. The same goes for Vicky, played by Rebecca Hall, an English actress with a faultless mastery of Allen's own New York rhythms. Hers is actually the main role, though she's dwarfed in the advertising by Scarlett and Penélope Cruz (the latter fine too in another of Allen's big, showy monster roles, albeit one who doesn't turn up until the film is half over. Just as well; a little goes a long way with Allen's hysterics).
The plot is the usual impossibility-of-finding-true-love and art-versus-life malarkey he's been serving up since Manhattan, and peopled by characters who are as always products entirely of his world rather than their own. Nothing in the film says 2008; there is no hint of contemporary issues or of a culture that has changed in any obvious ways since the late seventies. This is not a bad thing, by the way, it just means that it is not real: the older Woody gets, the more he is kind of in his own little dream world. This is good. I like A Countess From Hong Kong very much, too: I like it when a distinctive film-maker with a unique voice sets their work apart from the temporary obsessions of the year in which it was made. Allen's got his eye on the retrospectives, not the weekend figures.
It's a pretty inconsequential film, but pleasant, and certainly more relaxed and assured than Allen's other director-only meditations on these subjects, which tended to come across as unduly earnest filmed theatre. This is his most liberatedly cinematic film in God knows how long, and his most visually sumptuous certainly since A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, perhaps ever. It's a reminder of how much fresher he can be as a film-maker when he forces himself outside of his autopilot zone. The characterisation runs true to form, however, and some of that loaded dialogue comes off heavily when there's no Allen to give it a punchline, but the golden photography and beautiful locations (neither a traditional source of pleasure to Allen) make this a very easy film to watch.