Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Posted on February 10, 2011


I believe this film is Woody Allen’s James-ian story — the innocent American’s encounter with the sophisticated European. The innocent Americans in this film are Vicky and Cristina, two best friends who have come to spend a glorious summer in Barcelona. The girls are played by Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson, respectively. The sophisticated Europeans are the sexy painter Juan Antonio and his ex-wife Maria Elena, played by Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz.

The film opens with the two girls arriving in Barcelona; the narrator doesn’t waste much time and tells us that these two have very different views on the matter of love. Vicky wants stability and Cristina only knows what she doesn’t want — stability. All is well in Barcelona until one evening when Cristina spots a lonely man in an art gallery. She is informed that he is a painter and had a “bad divorce”. Naturally, she takes an instant liking to him and provokes eye contact with him for the rest of the evening. Since there was never a Spaniard in a film who refused an invitation, Juan Antonio walks up to the ladies and make an interesting proposal to both of them — he will show them around the town of Oviedo, they will eat great food, drink good wine, and make love in the evening. Vicky, who has a fiancé back in the U.S., is scandalized and Cristina is amused and accepts the offer. And so begins a crazy entanglement that will lead to much questioning and reluctant soul-searching.

Allen doesn’t really have any surprises for us here. We know right away that despite her professed love for her fiancé and the stability of married life, Vicky will fall for Juan’s free-wheeling lifestyle and torture herself wondering, “Is this is what I really want?” Cristina will rush headlong into a romance with Juan, who, to be fair, proves to be a wonderful sort of fellow. He encourages her to follow her heart, introduces her to his poet and painter friends; and, makes wonderful love to her. And then, one fine night, Maria Elena comes to stay with them after her latest failed attempt at suicide.

Maria and Juan are “made for each other”, which means that instead of being the ying to the other’s yang, they are all ying and all yang. To illustrate how perfect they are together, Allen tells us that Maria had stabbed Juan during one of their famous fights. Of all the stereotypes in the world, Allen picks the mother of all romantic stereotypes! Anyway, the fiery Maria quickly realizes that Cristina poses no threat to her on-off relationship with Juan and extends the hand of friendship. She encourages Cristina to pursue photography, helps her develops a style, makes a darkroom for her and experiments with her as a lover. Surprisingly, Cristina proves to be the ying to the combined yang of Juan and Maria. She soaks in the experience and the three settle into a comfortable sort of existence — sharing each other’s bed and providing each other inspiration.

But soon the experience stops being an experience for Cristina; the narrator tells us that she began having more thoughts than feelings. When she breaks this news to Juan and Maria, Maria throws a fit; “chronic dissatisfaction, that’s what you have” she tells Cristina. Probably, the truest thing said in this film. Maria, and Juan to some extent, is all feeling and Cristina wants to be like them but she is not like them and that is what she discovers. She, like all dreamers, only likes the idea of something but never the real thing.

But the audience would definitely sigh with relief at Cristina’s decision. For all their fiery and bohemian charm, Juan and Maria are the outsiders in this worldview. If Cristina had decided to stay back in Spain and only Vicky had returned to America, we would feel like we have lost Cristina. Barcelona is a risky little emotional adventure and the trick is come back home safe and a little wiser.

Scarlett is luscious to look at but she is not exactly a good actress. There are places in the film where Allen appears handicapped by this fact; especially, the scene where Cristina sits by herself and makes the decision to break off with Juan and Maria. Instead of Cristina articulating her thoughts, which frankly would have been far more natural and effective, Scarlett is filmed from a distance as she looks at the ocean and the narrator simply tells us that she was having thoughts about the relationship. It’s a shame because Cristina’s story at this point is far more interesting than Vicky’s. Rebecca, on the other hand, is delightfully muddled as Vicky. The key note of her character is hesitation rather than cowardice and Rebecca expresses this wonderfully through her body language. She could almost be the milder female version of the Allen character.

Juan’s reputation precedes his character. He is a famous artist, with a fiery temper and a fiery relationship with women. But it all turns out to be hearsay. He is in fact the dullest character in the film. We do not see the fiery temper nor do we see his tempestuous relationship with women. He is actually in thrall of Maria Elena. It is she who makes him exciting and dangerous. She claims that he looks for her in every women and that he has stolen her style. Honestly, I believe her. Javier Bardem makes an interesting beginning simply because you didn’t expect him to pull off the sexy artist routine (especially, as his Anton Chigurh is engraved in your mind). But then, the general dullness of his character sinks him. Bardem would have fared better if he had added a touch of the devil to his performance, but Bardem plays Juan too straight.

And finally, Penelope Cruz. When Juan tells Cristina that Maria used to be the most beautiful and passionate woman in Spain and there were 100 men ready to kill for her, you believe him — the magnificent wreck is proof enough. But Allen smothers her character with a heavy gloss of romanticism. With her tousled hair, kohl-rimmed eyes, loose fitting clothes and languorous sensuality, she fits a romantic’s description of a passionate artist. But where is the pain and frustration of living with and being someone like that? Sure, this is a comedy but since when did Allen shy away from a little unpleasantness? Isn’t he the man who gave us the ugly spat between Sydney Pollack and his blonde girlfriend in Husbands and Wives? Cruz, to her credit, tries to bring a nasty sort of temper and edge to her character. But her attempts do not reach us because she is doubly distanced from us: first, the film positions her as an outsider, someone we don’t invest in emotionally; second, she speaks Spanish for most of her screen time and very little English. So we don’t even know what she is saying half of the time only that she is always angry.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a strictly okay film by Allen’s standard. The film is glorious to look at. Barcelona, I thought, would be all white under the blinding sunlight, but here, it is golden and mellow. But then this is a film dripping with an old fool’s romanticism where soft focus rather than cutting insight is the order of the day.

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