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Matters of Belief

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Metro Goldwyn Mayer and the Weinstein Company)

A Secret (Strand Releasing)

Two young American women, Vicky and Cristina, go to spend a summer in Barcelona. Dining one night in a restaurant, they see a good-looking man across the room. Soon the man, a Spanish painter fluent in English, comes over to their table, says that he is about to fly to Oviedo to look at a favorite sculpture there, and invites them to come with him. To their own surprise, they accept. He pilots his plane through a storm, lodges them in a splendid hotel, whirls them the next day to the sculpture and the sights of the city, and pursues Cristina amorously, but when she becomes indisposed, he transfers his attentions to Vicky. She says she likes guitar music: he knows a wonderful guitarist and takes her to hear him. Then they visit his father, a charming old poet....

All this, we might easily think, sketches the first installment of a women's-magazine serial from the 1940s. But it is the start of Woody Allen's new film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Allen has merely added to this old-type fantasy a great deal of frankness and sex. For instance, when the painter, Juan Antonio, approaches the women in the restaurant, he proposes that in Oviedo, besides enjoying food and wine and art, they make love. In the course of the story, the sex happens with all three. But frank though the film is, it never entirely masks the basic romantic fabrication.

The storybook quality is fixed at the start by the voice-over (not Allen's voice). As the two young women ride in a taxi from the airport, the voice-over describes their characters, as one kind of writer might do before he puts his people in motion. Throughout the picture, though the voice-over serves its usual purpose by helping with transitions, it never quite loses its authorial tone.

Most of the story is set in Barcelona, with the inevitable bow to Gaudí. The horizontal doings of the two women and Juan Antonio are the center, but the most electric scenes are between Juan Antonio and his ex-wife, a painter named Maria Elena. These two are divorced in name only. They still love each other fiercely--in two senses. When, further along in the sexual merry-go-round, Cristina is actually living with Juan Antonio, he brings his ex-wife home one night after she has attempted suicide--possibly to draw his attention. So, for a time, Maria Elena is banished to the guest room while her beloved is in the bedroom with his new girlfriend. Of course Maria Elena soon reasserts her sexual prowess with Juan Antonio: later she beds his girlfriend and, not much later, both of them. Thus the magazine romance is updated.

Allen strains to complicate the plot. Vicky is engaged--to Doug, a New Yorker she will marry in the fall. While she is vibrating with Juan Antonio's zing, Doug phones to say that he would like to have a pre-marriage in romantic Barcelona before their standard American wedding in the fall. So Doug's presence, maneuvered undeftly by Allen, is added to the tangle.

What keeps the film highly watchable, despite its structure, is the quality of its making. The cast could hardly be better. Rebecca Hall is intelligent, direct, calmly vivid as Vicky, who is a student writing a thesis on Catalan literature. Scarlett Johansson is Cristina, vocationally adrift, a mite pathetic. Allen suddenly endows her with a gift for photography, which sets her course. Johansson moves engagingly through it all.

Allen has dared to write Maria Elena as our old acquaintance, the tempestuous Latin woman, but the cliché is exploded by Penélope Cruz, who seemingly never heard of it and knows only Maria Elena. If fireworks could be sexy, they would depict Cruz. Lavishing credibility on the whole tale, or at least making us wish it were true, is Javier Bardem as Juan Antonio. He is a powerhouse. His tactful confidence with the two young women is winning, and his love-hate relationship with Maria Elena really steams. (One of their ex-marital quarrels takes place in a street, and Allen makes us believe that they are a neighborhood fixture--no passerby pays attention.)

Sparing us his own presence in the film, Allen inferably uses Bardem as his stand-in. Many of us have long endured Allen's lovemaking on screen; now, his age mercifully precluding his own sex antics, he has instead written Juan Antonio and fulfilled the role with Bardem. In a recent amusing piece in The New York Times, Allen wrote: "If this were a scant few years ago, I would have played Javier's part." This joke, like many a joke, seems rooted in secrets.

Well, he supports his fantasy with his true talents. Much of the dialogue is good Allen stuff--neat, perceptive, often funny. His ability with actors has been evident for years and has constantly grown. Likewise his fluency with the camera. From the opening pan of the picture through the compositions that emphasize and depict, Allen's directing is assured.

But the film is considerably schizoid. All the gifts of the cast and of Allen, all the little insights that are scattered along the way, are expended on a screenplay that is mostly contrivances. The best deviation from dreamy plotting is the finish. A conventional romance would have had a knitted-up ending. Vicky Cristina Barcelona simply untangles. Its most up-to-date aspect is that it does not formally conclude. The American women have some warm experiences; then they travel on. The same is true for the viewer.

Many a film starts with the statement that it is based on facts, but this statement has never been more curious than with a French film called A Secret. The screenplay, by the director Claude Miller and Natalie Carter, is adapted from an avowedly autobiographical novel by Philippe Grimbert; thus we are entitled to believe that the crucial events are true. Oddly, this truth is bothersome.

A Secret begins in 1955 in Paris, in the home of the Grimbert family: mother and father and young François. The boy keeps imagining a phantom brother, which greatly disturbs his parents, Maxime and Tania, and the film sets out to explain why. There indeed was a brother--or half-brother--about whom François has not known.

The Grimbert family was originally Grinberg, French Jews proud of both parts of the term. In sequences of present-day revelation, as François grows older, he learns about the past, the coming of French fascism and German occupation in the 1940s, along with the Grinbergs' reluctance--typical of so many European Jews--to believe that their beloved native country could turn on them. In the 1930s Maxime is married not to Tania, but to another woman named Hannah, and they have a son called Simon. Tania is married to Maxime's brother, Robert. Nonetheless, Maxime and Tania are deeply attracted to each other.

This domestic imbroglio is set amid the continental upheavals of the time: indeed, the point of the film is to depict personal disturbances persisting in gigantically horrendous times. In 1940 France was divided into two zones, with the Germans in the north and the southern zone relatively free, and some of the family manage to get to the south. Then come the events in the film that make us pause. The political turmoil actually solves the family's domestic problems. Robert, drafted, dies of typhus in a camp, thus freeing Tania. Hannah, who knows about the heat between Maxime and his brother's wife, commits an act at the zone border involving her and her son that clears the way for Maxime.

Miller, a skilled veteran, reverses the old visual pattern for films with lengthy flashbacks: he shoots the past in color and the (evolving) present in black and white. This approach rightly makes the past the center of the film. The outstanding performances, fatefully passionate, come from Cécile de France as Tania and Patrick Bruel as Maxime. Still, the solution of marital troubles by external conditions, factual though it may be, tinges tragedy with the bizarre.

Postscript. Some readers were quick to spot a slip in my review of Man on Wire several weeks ago--a slip that leads to an interesting point about this endearing film. In this documentary about Philippe Petit, who walked a tightrope between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974, I said there was only one reference to the destruction of those towers twenty-seven years later--one quick glimpse of the excavation of Ground Zero. Another viewing of the film proved, as readers had noted, that the excavation shot was of the building of the towers, not their demolition. I was in a way relieved. That (mistaken) glimpse of the disaster had seemed a bit of a token. When I saw that the picture made absolutely no reference to 9/11, it seemed even more whole. We can assume, I think, that Petit and the director, James Marsh, thought hard about how to deal with the disaster and felt that they had three options. One, they could give it a tip of the hat, which is what I had assumed and which would underscore (as I thought) that they had not treated it adequately. Two, they could treat it adequately, which would badly misshape the picture they wanted to make. Third, they could omit any mention at all of 9/11 and thus leave it to viewers, all too aware of the catastrophe, to supply the grim background for a film that is in a quite different key. The third option worked, to judge by most of the comments I have seen and heard. Critics and others have supplied the background as they watched. The exhilaration in Man on Wire is all the more a leap free of human limitations--at least for a time--because we know what is waiting there.

Stanley Kaufmann is the film critic at The New Republic.

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By Stanley Kauffmann