That narration, which weaves in and out of the story like a thread, is spoken by the actor Christopher Evan Welch, but more rightly belongs to Woody Allen, the film’s writer and director. Although “Vicky Cristina” trips along winningly, carried by the beauty of its locations and stars — and all the gauzy romanticism those enchanted places and people imply — it reverberates with implacable melancholy, a sense of loss. Mr. Allen may be buoyed (like the rest of us) by his recent creative resurrection, but this is still the same glum clown who, after the premiere of “Match Point,” his pitch-black, near pitch-perfect 2005 drama, commented that cynicism was just an alternate spelling of reality. Ah, life! Ah, Woody!
Ah, wilderness of a heart that knows what it wants even when the rest of the body does not! Sensible Vicky (Rebecca Hall) insists that she knows what she wants — her dull fiancé in New York, for one — while dreamy Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) does not. The two have traveled to Barcelona so that Vicky, who speaks little Spanish, can work on her masters in Catalan culture, while Cristina plays her foil, and we play virtual tourist amid the city’s Gaudí splendors. With the narrator setting the brisk, at times rushed, pace, the women move in with some acquaintances (Patricia Clarkson and Kevin Dunn), but their sentimental education doesn’t really begin until they meet one of Spain’s national treasures: Javier Bardem.
Mr. Bardem slithers into “Vicky Cristina” (and in that order) like a snake in the garden, wrapping himself around the two women with blissful, insinuating, sensuous ease. He’s the celebrated painter Juan Antonio, one of those artistic sybarites who attack both women and canvases with bold strokes. Eyes hooded, smile taunting, he invites the Americans to fly away for the weekend — a jug of wine, a loaf of bread, thou and thou — a proposition that inspires mockery from Vicky and girlish excitement in Cristina. Mr. Bardem, relieved of his ghoulish Prince Valiant bob from “No Country for Old Men,”invests the cliché of the Latin lover with so much humor and feeling that he quickly vanquishes the stereotype.
The same goes for Penélope Cruz, who plays a combustible Judy to Mr. Bardem’s smoldering Punch. As Maria Elena, Juan Antonio’s unstable former wife (an incident with a blade botched their happily ever after), Ms. Cruz has her own type to surmount, which she does with fire, smoke and comedy. With her artfully tousled hair and watchful eyes, Maria Elena is a classic screen siren (and totally crazy chick), but one with the pulse of a real woman. Ms. Cruz, slipping between Spanish and English (the latter was once a serious obstacle for her), does especially nice work with her voice, which seductively lowers and sometimes rises with animal intensity, suggesting a more variegated interior world than that provided by Mr. Allen’s writing.
Maria Elena and Juan Antonio give the film such a twinned jolt of energy that you may wish it would head off into Almodóvar country, but that wouldn’t be true to Mr. Allen, for whom desire remains an agony. Still, he’s enough of an entertainer to give the audience its pleasures, which partly accounts for Ms. Johansson. She isn’t much of an actress, but it doesn’t terribly matter in his films: She gives him succulent youth, and he cushions her with enough laughs to distract you from her lack of skill. The appealing Ms. Hall, whose jaw line and brittle delivery evoke Katharine Hepburn, furnishes an actual performance, one that, tinged with sadness, makes evident that this is as much a tragedy as a comedy.
There will always be an audience that hungers for a certain kind of Woody Allen movie, but it’s a relief that he has moved away from the safety and provincialism of his New York. Working in Britain for his previous three films and in Spain for this one has had a liberating effect, perhaps because it’s made it easier for him to step down as a leading man.
The characters in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” by contrast, generally move fluidly — bopping and weaving, going here, pausing there — a looseness that works contrapuntally with the voice-over’s insistent forward drive. Delivered in novelistic third person, the narration allows Mr. Allen to dispense with large chunks of exposition, to fill in the narrative gaps, yet it also puts some aesthetic distance between him and his characters. The film feels personal — “Sentimental Education,” a touchstone here, is one of the things that makes life worth living, as he says in “Manhattan” — though not claustrophobic, another cloyingly needy dispatch from a ravenous id. What Mr. Allen says about life and disappointment still sounds very Woody, but these days he seems content to speak through his characters, not just for them.
By MANOHLA DARGIS