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Woody Allen banks on three beauties to woo critics at Cannes

Director's latest film features his trademark wit – and a kiss between Scarlett Johansson and Penelope Cruz

Woody Allen's recently tarnished reputation as a film-maker regained some of its sparkle in Cannes this weekend. After three indifferently received films shot in Britain, Allen's much-publicised new film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, played at the Cannes Film Festival yesterday to a response that, if not quite rapturous, was at least a collective sigh of relief.

Shot in Barcelona, it stars Scarlett Johansson as an American who gets romantically entangled with a Spanish artist, played by Javier Bardem, then winds up in a ménage à trois with him and his ex-wife (Penelope Cruz).

At the film's press conference yesterday, a journalist asked Allen: "Are threesomes a fantasy of yours and have you ever wanted to make one?" The reply was quintessential Allen: "It's hard enough to get one person."

Allen turned up in a dowdy brown jumper, flanked by two of the film's cast, Cruz and British actress Rebecca Hall.

Asked why he chose to shoot in Barcelona, Allen was pragmatic. "People in Barcelona asked, would I be interested in making a film there, and they'd finance it. I said, 'Sure, my wife and children would love to spend the summer there,' so I wrote the script. If someone in Rome or Paris or Stockholm had asked me, I'd have done it readily."

However, he flatly denied reports that the film had received €1m (£800,000) in funding from the city's administration. While it's by no means vintage Allen, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a distinct improvement on his recent UK-shot trilogy: Match Point, Scoop and the recent Cassandra's Dream, starring Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell, released this week, which arguably represents the director at his nadir.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona, however, regains some of the urbane wit that Allen fans relish, and is likely to be one of his most commercially successful films in some time – not least because it includes a torrid kiss between Johansson and Cruz.

The press conference was also a showcase for up-and-coming British star Hall. Asked how she landed the part in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Hall – the daughter of director Sir Peter Hall and opera singer Maria Ewing – turned to Allen and recalled their first meeting: "You said, 'Can you do an American accent?' I said, 'Yes.' And you said, 'Bye.'"

After Cannes, Allen returns to New York to complete his new comedy, with a cast led by Curb Your Enthusiasm star Larry David. "It's about a group of highly neurotic characters," he explained. Every chance it'll be vintage Woody, then.

Cannes shorts

* Former heavyweight world-champion boxer Mike Tyson said yesterday it was a "miracle" he was still alive after 40, as he launched a documentary about his life at the Cannes Film Festival. In 'Tyson', he describes being bullied, his deprived childhood in Brooklyn, his mother's promiscuity and the bitterness he felt over his "unjust" rape conviction in 1992 for which he served three years in jail. "I've lived a wild and extreme life... used drugs... slept with guys' wives," he said. "I'm just happy to be here."

* Brazilian director Walter Salles has made a documentary in which he takes the same road trip as the lead character in 'On the Road', Jack Kerouac's seminal book on the Beat Generation of the 1950s and '60s. In the documentary, 'Searching for On the Road', Salles takes the same journey as Kerouac's alter ego, Sal Paradise, and talks to Beat poets who knew Kerouac. Salles' current film, 'Linha de Passe', is up for the Palme d'Or at Cannes this year.

Arifa Akbar, Arts Correspondent