The focus on the tensions between art and conventional society marks something of a return to the preoccupations of Allen’s early films. Noticeably absent here is the moralistic hand wringing over God, punishment, and freedom from Crimes and Misdemeanors, or the metaphysical speculations about chance from Match Point.
Juan Antonio’s Don Juan version of nihilism — wherein life is “short, dull, and full of pain” but still offers special moments — is never really put to the test. Toward the end, Juan Antonio confesses rather matter-of-factly that he and Maria Elena were “meant for each other and not meant for each other — it’s a contradiction.”
After a suicide attempt, Maria Elena moves back in with Juan and a somewhat baffled Cristina. Initially, she has nothing but scorn for the “American tourist,” now sharing her former husband’s bed. Insisting on speaking in Spanish in order to exclude Cristina, she confidently tells Juan: “You are searching for me in every woman you meet.” She reminds him of their unrivalled passion. When he notes that things did not work out so well, she dismisses him. He states, “You tried to kill me,” to which she responds, “Oh, that.”
When Cristina finds out that Maria Elena has searched her luggage, she objects. Maria Elena is undaunted: “Of course, I searched your luggage. I did not believe you were who you said you were. How could I be sure you wouldn’t hurt me? After all, I have thoughts of killing you.”
Were it not for Cruz’s performance, the film would be a huge disappointment. One problem here is that, while Bardem is reasonably effective opposite Cruz, none of the other women is. There is really no contest between Cruz and Johanssen. It is as if Sophia Loren in her heyday were cast opposite Jessica Simpson. As the embodiment of Allen’s romanticism, Johanssen is too flat and too often vapid. She is sheer restlessness, but restlessness with no depth or even much angst. Precisely because she has no idea what she wants, only what she does not want, she has nothing in the end to affirm. Negation here is elevated to a way of life and comes off as nothing more than an expression of arrested adolescent development.
In the end — and despite the film’s exotic setting — you know you’ve seen a late-career Woody Allen movie.
– Thomas S. Hibbs is distinguished professor of ethics and culture at Baylor University and author of Arts of Darkness.