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Lost in translation

Woody Allen’s European movies have always seemed a bit stiff to me. Matchpoint seems ill-at-ease, desperately calling for the customary New York setting to make sense (and actors comfortable with Allen’ s hallmark machine-gun dialogue delivery); Scarlett Johannsen’s lost-in-England American girl feels a bit more spontaneous in Scoop, but it is probably because Allen is himself on screen to set the pace to a charming if formulaic movie; and Cassandra’ s Dream has to be Allen’s most representative attempt in Europeness – there is no American character on the plot and America itself only appears as Ewan McGregor’s character’ s pipedream. It is also artifficially dry and slow and finally unconvincing.

Vicky Christina Barcelona, on the other hand, is an unforced acknowledgement of Allen’ s failure to be European. Here we have two American girls, Scarlett Johannsen and Rebecca Hall (an English actress born to an American mother, mezzo-soprano Maria Ewing) in Spain. Vicky (Hall) is about to marry her all-American Mr. Right and goes to Barcelona to prepare her thesis on Catalan culture, while Christina (Johannsen) is sick of WASP-land and looking for something that clicks her artistic vein. There they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) and Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), who finally show them that expatriate life never makes you a local, but rather puts your foreignness in perspective.

This is probably Allen’s best movie in a while – the Spanish setting is attractive but not self-indulgent, the soundtrack does create the necessary atmosphere and both Bardem nd Cruz ooze charisma and flair, contagiating Johannsen into producing her best piece of acting to the date. Here she eschews tha usual purring petty-seduction for real and powerful sex-appeal. One could imagine that Rebecca Hall could be overshadowed in the context, but not only does she survive the competition but aso brings a special kind of concentration and handles Allen’s verbose dialogues to perfection.

If you are dying to see a new “classic” by Woody Allen, this is probably not your movie – but it is certainly worth while the detour.

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Euro-Allen

Woody Allen’s “European” career has turned around a surprising search for a new style by a senior director and an obsession for the theme of guilt (maybe that comes with old age too, who knows?). I have to confess I wasn’t convinced by Match Point. I sorely missed New York, fast dialogues, jazz music and less uptight actors. Scoop almost seduced me back with its “Alice”-like elegant comedy style, but again – if the idea was to be innovative, it felt strangely familiar.

On the other hand, Cassandra’s Dream is a D.O.C European movie – it is Allen’s first “mature” film in his new style, curious as it sounds. It flows in a denser but slower pace and its artless subtle imagery has a French almost Chabrol-ian self-indulgence. Philip Glass’s soundtrack also gives it a certain old-fashioned gravitas, which fits the pale cinematography. I am tempted to say that these elements grant the movie a rather 60’s-like atmosphere – and the presence of a boat and the interaction between the two leading men makes me think of Purple Noon, but I still feel that dialogues do not reach the same level of concentration found in the remaining dramatic elements. Some twists of the plot lack timing and end on seeming contrived and abrupt, what is particularly unsettling in a film that take some time to take off. I could say some share of the fault lies goes to two of my favourite members of the cast: I found Tom Wilkinson rather sketchy (it is, I must concede, a difficult part with not enough scenes for development) and I could not connect to Ewan McGregor’s performance, which I found detached and uninvolved. In my opinion, he was overshadowed by Colin Farrell, in his best performance ever. The director demanded from him a crescendo in intensity that few actors could handle so convincingly as he does here. Both actresses are excellent – Sally Hawkins builds an engaging and spontaneous character, particularly moving in the second half of the movie and Hayley Atwell resists the temptation of vamp-ing her femme fatale and offers instead real sexiness and charm.

You might ask me if I have finally enjoyed the movie – yes, I have. Although I still believe that the script and some pieces of casting could have been improved, Woody Allen retains your attention and gets your involved in these characters’ predicaments. In the end, this celebrated director’s intent to renew himself at this point in his career is self-validating. How many geniuses have the courage to do so?

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