Europe, real and fake: Woody does Barcelona

Legend has it that Europeans enjoy bolder, looser, more free-spirited lives than North Americans—lives like over-filled wine glasses, spilling over with sex and romance. Well, I today I saw a couple of movies about those wild and crazy Europeans, two ensemble pieces about flamboyantly messed-up lives. Arnaud Desplechin’s Un Comte de Noel (A Christmas Tale) offered a view of Europe from the inside, France to be precise. The other was a view from the outside—from Woody Allen, the ultimate outsider, who has taken another jaunt into directorial tourism. Both films are both ensemble pieces, but worlds apart.

Un Comte de Noel is a long, rambling story of a bourgeois family going into dysfunctional overdrive during a reunion at the parental home. The matriarch (a magisterial Catherine Deneuve) has leukemia, and waiting to find out which one of her kin will end up providing her with a bone marrow transplant. The French love making movies about families going to pieces in large houses while drinking copious amounts of wine. This film is classically French and lavishly democratic: every member of this tri-generational clan seems entitled to his or her own indulgent back story. Patience wears thin. As the thing dragged on, I just wished we could spend more time with Catherine Deneuve, who is divine. But I’m glad I hung in to the end, for the payoff of the bone-marrow transplant scene, which is luxuriously realistic and detailed. And something we haven’t seen before, a novel equivalent to the stock childbirth scene. It also made you want to check yourself into a French hospital immediately. Deneuve’s room looked infinitely more comfortable than my hotel. Maybe Michael Moore was right about their health care.

Then there ‘s Woody Allen’s latest opus, or rather bagatelle: Vicky Cristina Barcelona. If Un Comte de Noel is an unconscious caricature of European manners, Allen’s is a conscious one. Woody has basically decamped to Europe, and after making movies in England, now he’s now ventured one more step farther from Manhattan (or is it closer?) by setting a picture in Barcelona. VCB is a slight confection, much less sophisticated than Desplechin’s slow-cooked artisanal intrigue. But I realized within minutes that I was immensely grateful for its facile humour, and its broad swift strokes of farce. In Cannes, it felt like recess.

Allen is turning out movies at a ridiculous rate. Cassandra’s Dream premiered just nine months ago. This latest effort, if ‘effort’ is the right word, feels just as slapdash. But because it’s a comedy, and the actors are such a pleasure to watch, it’s more forgivable. Scarlett Johansson, who seems to have inherited the mantle of Allen’s muse, co-stars with Rebecca Hall as two Americans in Barcelona who get picked up by a parody of a Latin lover/painter, played with delightful panache by Javier Bardem. Penelope Cruz is on fire as Bardem’s tempestuous ex-wife, who once tried to kill him. The plot is a an old man’s cartoon of male fantasy crossed with a caricature of Euro-bohemian utopia: Bardem blithely picks up these two lovely American tourists by asking them, with his opening line, to fly off with him in a three-seater plane to spend the weekend in a picturesque town enjoying a menage-a-trois.

This is one of Woody’s throw-away movies. It’s as if he has a compulsion to make them, just as he has to haul his ass down to Michael’s Pub in Manhattan every Monday and play clarinet. But his effortless virtuosity is impressive, even when on cruise control. The visual are seductive, even if the locations are a postcard series of Gaudi’s greatest architectural hits.The humour is based on broad stereotypes of Americans and Europeans, but for a romantic comedy it does break with convention and drift toward a rather bleak, ragged ending. Also, this film is free of the ick-factor that taints a lot of Allen’s later work. (For one thing, he’s not on screen).  It seems every major actor wants to be in a Woody Allen film while he’s still with us, and it’s a treat to see how heavyweights like Bardem and Cruz take to his direction. Not to mention Brit newcomer Rebecca Hall. With almost every film, Allen keeps uncovering beautiful and talented ingenues.

Sounds like I’m damning a guilty pleasure with faint praise. Fine, guilty as charged. We’ll see what it looks like in the cold light of Toronto when it resurfaces next fall.

I’m dying to tell you about the film I just saw late tonight, a documentary called Tyson by James Toback. It’s astonishing . Tyson, by the way, was at the screening, and I’m waiting for my video of him to upload as I type. But this will have to wait. It’s ridiculously late. . . a demain.

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