By mid-2007, Woody Allen was happily entrenched in the European production sector after a lifetime telling New York stories. Funding had dried up from increasingly cautious US backers and shooting in the Big Apple was proving pricey. After a decade of poorly received films, Allen had largely been dismissed by US critics as irrelevant. Relocating to the UK in 2005, the prolific auteur returned to form with one major success, Match Point, and churned out a couple of interesting but minor films – Scoop and Cassandra’s Dream.
The anticipation was tangible when it was announced that Vicky Cristina Barcelona, his first production to shoot entirely in continental Europe, would be a fiery tale of passion and jealousy set against the rustic textures and bohemian mindset of Spain. Allen’s latest muse, Scarlett Johansson (in her third film with the director in three years) would be Cristina, a free-spirited American travelling with her more cautious friend Vicky (Rebecca Hall). As the swarthy, sultry painter who offers intellectual and physical pleasures like the ladies have never known, Javier Bardem (hot off his Oscar win for No Country for Old Men) proved inspired casting.
But from very early on in the shoot, it became clear that the film was sparking to life every time Penélope Cruz stood before the camera. Not on screen until halfway through the film, Cruz’s Maria Elena – the firebrand ex-wife of Bardem’s Juan Antonio – spins the trajectory of the film on its narrative axis, suddenly bringing danger, conflict and a raw sexuality to the group’s dynamic. Allen uses her character to expose the false nature of the trio’s game-playing – Vicky and Cristina’s twee American fantasies, and Juan’s manipulative caricature of the Latin lover archetype.
Until Cruz’s appearance, Vicky Cristina Barcelona was a fine film simmering with will-they-won’t-they longings – and glorious to look at. But when her Maria Elena arrives, it is as though everyone involved in the film snaps to attention in her presence; you can see the eyes of her co-stars widen every time they share screen-time with Cruz. It is easy to visualise Allen convulsing with glee at what Penélope Cruz is doing with his words.
Actresses gravitate to Woody Allen and have been handsomely rewarded – his films have earned five Oscars for his leading ladies, including Cruz’s own Best Supporting Actress honour. But not since Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall has an actress returned the favour, inspiring him to produce some of his best work.