I've said before that a new film from Woody Allen is something like getting a Christmas gift from your eccentric aunt; you never know if you'll get a crocheted toilet paper cozy, or a piece of priceless heirloom jewelry. Fortunately, Allen's newest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, turns out to be more like the latter. The story opens with Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), two best friends heading to Barcelona for eight weeks of fun.

Vicky's distant relations Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and Mark (Kevin Dunn) live in Barcelona, and have invited the girls to spend the summer there, where Vicky will do research for her Masters and Cristina will soak up the local culture. Vicky is engaged to be married to Doug (Chris Messina), a stalwart, likable, but rather boring young man, and Cristina is recovering from her latest breakup and looking for an artistic outlet for her pent-up creativity.

At an art gallery event, Cristina's eye is caught by a dashing painter, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). His eyes smolder at Cristina from across the room; she's intrigued, and asks Judy and Mark who the man is. They reply that he's a painter, and that there was some sort of gossip surrounding the breakup of his marriage -- something involving violent fights and someone getting stabbed.

That this is enough to make Vicky not want to know more about him, while Cristina is all the more entranced, tells us much about the two girls. Later that night, Vicky and Cristina see Juan Antonio at a restaurant. Again, smoldering eye contact ensues, and Juan Antonio swaggers over to their table, introduces himself, and then promptly invites both girls to join him for a weekend jaunt to Oviedo, where, he suggests, the three of them might enjoy some excellent dining, take in the splendid local scenery, and perhaps engage in some passionate lovemaking.

Responsible Vicky, is, of course, quick to icily brush off Juan Antonio's advances, but Cristina, ever up for adventure and new experiences, is game to go along, so Vicky dutifully accompanies her friend in the hope that she might prevent her, at least, from being murdered by the suave, dashing painter.

It may seem a bit unrealistic to think that a young woman would agree to a weekend trip with a stranger, but Bardem pulls of Juan Antonio's directness and charm with a disconcerting ease that, I'm sure, made many a female heart flutter at tonight's screening. In Oviedo, Vicky resists Juan Antonio's charms for a while, but when Cristina is taken ill with food poisoning, she ends up spending more time with him. Flames of interest and passion flicker, and the two end up sharing a memorable night of passionate lovemaking.

Upon their return to Barcelona, though, Juan Antonio resumes his pursuit of Cristina, deciding to leave Vicky alone, so as not to further complicate her imminent marriage. Cristina moves in with him, and all is going swimmingly until the sudden return of Juan Antonio's beautiful, crazy ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), following a suicide attempt. What with Maria Elena's passionate and paranoid rantings, things are a bit sticky for a while, but eventually Maria Elena warms up to Cristina, and the trio ends up involved in a rather bizarre three-way relationship in which sex and powerful emotions are entwined.

Meanwhile, Doug has come to Barcelona to marry Vicky, who can't stop thinking about Juan Antonio. When Vicky stumbles upon Judy kissing another man, Judy confesses that she hasn't been in love with Mark for years. Vicky confesses to her aunt her feelings for Juan Antonio, and Judy sets out to convince her niece to take a chance and pursue her heart's desire, rather than settling for the mundane.

That's the basic story, but there's so much more in between the lines that I won't reveal, so as not to spoil the joys of discovering them in the film for yourself. Suffice it to say that Allen has created one of his best works in years, a film that is funny, philosophical, and imaginatively explorative of the meaning of love and desire. Cruz turns in a performance that's better, even, than her Oscar-nominated turn in Volver; her Maria Elena is on-the-edge crazy, but is also very funny and engaging.

Johannson is quite good here as well, and Bardem completely makes you forget his psychotic serial killer in No Country for Old Men, believably playing Juan Antonio as a man who pursues passions and ardently seeks the meaning of love. Clarkson, of course, is also solid; I don't think she could turn in a bad performance if she tried, but the real revelation here is Hall, who brings the reluctant Vicky beautifully to life, playing out her fears and inhibitions, and bringing heart to the story.

I have to give Allen due credit here as both writer and director of the film. He's penned a script that could have been merely a surface exploration of male sexual fantasies, but turned it instead into a fascinating study of relationships and boundaries. There is sexual tension in the film, and a couple of fairly passionate, beautifully shot sexual scenes (yes, from Woody Allen), but Allen avoids using provocative nudity to make his point, instead keeping his focus firmly on the idea of desire and passion rather than overt, on-camera sex. There's no nudity in the film; Allen relies instead on the talent of his actors to convey the film's underlying sexuality.

As he has with his previous works shot in New York, Allen makes the city of Barcelona a character in the film rather than merely a location, creating an almost fable-like setting for Vicky and Cristina, where the very air seems to tear through inhibition and conventionality, and opens them to possibilities they'd previously never even imagined. Allen does use voice-over extensively throughout the film (provided by Christopher Evan Welch), which provoked an inner eyeroll when the film first started, but the wryly amused narration merely adds to the fable-like air of the film, rather than being obtrusive or telling us things we should be feeling.

We quickly get the sense that we're being told a story here, a fairy tale about two young girls who meet a charming artist who's not quite a Prince Charming riding in on a white horse to rescue them from peril; Juan Antonio serves, instead, to rescue Vicky and Cristina from their own expectations about what love and life should be. Allen has succeeded in making an excellent film; Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a lovely gift from a filmmaker who, when he's on his game, truly hits the mark.