Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Woody Allen :: USA :: 2007 :: 1h37
Two American girls, Vicky and Cristina, arrive in Barcelona one hot summer. Cristina falls for the perfect man Juan Antonio (played brilliantly by Javier Bardem), who sweeps her off her feet. As she basks in the shared pleasure of his life, the simplicity, honesty, comfort and creative ambition of Juan Antonio rub off on her, forcing her to the capricious question: if finally having what she always wanted really was what she wanted. Her girlfriend Vicky, looking on from the sidelines, becomes more and more tormented, questioning her own romantic ambitions in life.
In his 44th movie, the American director continues his European tour in Barcelona after three consecutive movies in London. He has managed to put together an excellent Spanish team, with a top director of photography responsible for a string of stunning imagery on location. To top it off, we are presented not only with his own muse Scarlett Johansson, but also with Almodovar’s Penelope Cruz (with an outstanding performance). The setting is perfect in an idealised Barcelona, but why is the old master taking us there?
Think back to when you are away on a holiday, in an appealing culture, sometimes we are struck with an overwhelming feeling that basically everything is better than back home – the food tastes better, the drink is more sophisticated, the people are funnier and appreciate what they have more than those back home, and so forth. It is a feeling that their lives are more authentic, or richer than your own. It is a moment where we feel the clash between our own background and deficiencies, and our aspirations embodied in the aesthetic of the culture you find yourself in. With Vicky Cristina Barcelona we can follow Woody Allen experiencing such a reaction to Barcelona.
As the tale unfolds, we are not only granted a view on the perfect life of Juan Antonio but also an unkind view on the American characters to counter the perfection of the city and its inhabitants. The worst off are the American men, who are portrayed so dull that the director even has their conversation faded out into the inaudible. If listening in on their conversations was not bad enough, they are also denied aesthetic justifications for their roles in the movie, with unflattering clothes and clumsy movements.
Of the girls, Cristina gets off best, as having not only the naive seductive power of a young girl, but also the wisdom to refrain from spurting trivialities or worse. Vicky is not as lucky, with mixed up unromantic and unamusing lines, or at times just silly. When Juan Antonio explains that his poet father does not like to speak foreign languages as it pollutes his language and thinking, Vicky replies with a short exposé on the problems of poetic translation, which was not the point.
As you would expect with the set-up, the Spanish characters come off marvellously, with Juan Antonio and his ex-wife Maria Elena splashing around like babies in a tub. He is a painter living out his passion, with no financial concerns at all, or any others for that matter besides those that concern him directly – he can drink and smoke and make love to who he wants, answering only to those concerned. He is funny, intelligent, sensitive, living in a beautiful house with a little red sports car, has a pilot’s license, is surrounded by the artistic intelligentsia of Barcelona and knows every nook and cranny in town. He was married to one of the most beautiful women in Spain, who also happens to be a very talented and supportive painter, an excellent musician and an expert photographer. We can not know all of her characteristics, but it is clear that both characters are idealised well out of being realistic personalities.
So are we to take the tale (which unfortunately has an unnecessary voice-over narrator throughout half the movie) as a criticism of the United States by one of its notables? If so, then the criticism is that the United States has lost contact with what is really important in life. That its people are obsessed with consuming and networking to be able to consume more, having lost touch with living and loving. Is this a fair criticism? Is it not more of a loose holiday experience morale from a movie which could have concentrated on the more promising story-line of the love triangle Cristina-Juan Antonio-Maria Elena, which would have made for a more complete story, with less ridicule. If you go in, you will have to try not to be too demanding, and perhaps take the American criticism with a pinch of salt. Watch the movie as an escape into another world, as a fictional bed-time story. It can certainly be appreciated it for its strength: it’s funny and is filled with beautiful images of a dream Barcelona.