Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008, Woody Allen)


On top of the other problems that come with it, being a fan of Woody Allen and keeping up with his later films involves a lot of armchair editing — from a distance, one ends up thinking a lot about how easily a given title could be tweaked to make it vastly, incomparably better than it is. Magic in the Moonlight was close to being a very good movie and could have become one with just a few extra rewrites, preferably with someone besides Allen involved in them. Irrational Man needed a lot more work than that, but it’s still not inconceivable that something interesting could have potentially emerged from the mess with a bit of adjustment rather than a complete overhaul. Allen isn’t the first artist whose work has historically relied heavily on the creative input of others, from record producers to cinematographers to co-writers to editors to choreographers, and in fact he’s always been one of the major filmmakers most willing to share his credit with others. In particular, apart from Quentin Tarantino, probably no significant director has relied so much on film editors to mold his films into shape, from Ralph Rosenblum’s role in transforming Annie Hall from its incomprehensible sprawl into a lean, tight, innovative romantic comedy to the director’s extremely fortuitous 22-year collaboration with Susan Morse, who evidently was forced out of his regular stable for financial reasons. Though it’s impossible to entirely know how much the downturn in Allen’s consistency since 1999 is a result of Morse’s absence, it’s safe to assume that some degree of the bloat seen in the overwhelming majority of his 21st century movies is a sign of the depth and importance of her role in rendering Allen’s frequently extraordinary directorial efforts of the prior two decades as tight and well-paced as they were.

The seemingly petty story of a love quadrangle that develops over a single summer in Spain involving a stormy former married couple and a pair of American tourists, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is one of Allen’s better late-period films by nearly universal consensus; after a messy first half, it reins in several of the clichés and repetitions he tends to fall back on as a writer to tell a surprisingly nuanced and intensely emotional story that delves into a much more complicated palette than the viewer initially expects. It’s also fluidly directed, as usual, and visually beautiful, shot expertly by Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe. One could even make an issue of this by pointing out that this is the director’s fourth unabashed “location porn” movie, functioning as a travel promo for the title city as much as earlier and subsequent films could be accused of being for London, Paris and Rome. (What a master he is at creating these, though; I am more drawn to this film’s Barcelona than I am to the Vienna of Before Sunrise or the Tuscany of Certified Copy, for example.) But for much of the film, scenes ramble longer than they should or belabor points that were already made clear; the dialogue is as awkward and stilted as had by now become the norm in Allen’s screenplays, which in turn makes some of the performances rigid (especially Rebecca Hall’s). The entire film is slathered with an unnecessary voiceover meant as an homage to François Truffaut’s Jules and Jim (as is the film as a whole), but as read by the late Christopher Evan Welch, it seems drained of any sense of irony despite its dispassionate tone, which is down less to Welch’s lack of charisma than to the poor job Allen did at composing his words. Never once in the film does Welch’s narration actually contribute anything that would not be clear if we simply watched the film develop naturally, and one can easily envision a variation that wholly lacks his contribution and know that this would improve the movie almost beyond measure. And if the extraneous overexplaining isn’t enough to make you shift uncomfortably in your seat, the characters’ own words are overrun with unrealistic phrasing and odd pauses that Allen and editor Alisa Lepselter can’t justify or cover up.

Though Allen referred to himself as a “compulsive rewriter” in 1980, there are repeated accusations, now that he’s known for being almost ridiculously prolific, that he shoots first drafts — maybe, maybe not, but even his best post-2000 films, like Match Point and the genuinely delightful Midnight in Paris, bear this out by the sense that their opening acts are awkward, tentative and tend to be populated with conversations that resemble multiple Woody Allens yammering back and forth. Then, almost invariably, it feels as if Allen finds some sort of a groove — like you do when you’re working through the first draft of something — and the films are redeemed almost entirely by their middle and ending sections, or thereabouts; in the case of Vicky Cristina, the first half’s existence is justified strictly by the second. But the problems of the first are only magnified on revisit, when you know how easily the early scenes could be streamlined, fleshed out or otherwise improved.

That’s not to say there are not crafty and effective moments in the first part of the film. We meet the usual amusingly privileged brood of pseudo-intellectual Allen characters, the kind he made fun of in his ’80s and ’90s work but now seems to perversely admire: these people always have boats and/or friends with boats, are fascinated by opera or sculpture in a manner reminiscent of indie rock kids’ passion for the Faint, are unduly impressed by restaurants that put candles at the center of the table and have a wine list, cannot appreciate a work of art unless they’re staring at it with a glass of red wine in hand, and have what appears to be an infinite amount of money to travel and “figure things out.” In this case, our two heroines are architecture student Vicky (Hall) and her best friend, the brooding and impulsive Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), both staying with family members of Vicky’s in Barcelona. Vicky’s already engaged to one of the caddish boyfriends Allen seems almost magically capable of defining with hilarious expertise, Doug (Chris Messina), a reliable bore who says “babe” a lot, scoffs at Cristina’s tempestuous love life and regales his equally bland friends with questions about DVRs and tennis lessons.

For Vicky, Doug represents the ideal of stability and sustained, predictable partnership; Cristina, who revels in her youth but has little idea what she wants out of life and is beginning to grow desperate to find an answer or at least an outlet for her frustration, understandably finds him dull. He’s a Nice Guy, which the stormy and mysterious painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) is not; after a preview engagement of leaning on a post in a red sweater, Juan Antonio enters the film somewhat amusingly by confronting Vicky and Cristina in a restaurant and proposing that they both join him on his private plane and go to bed with him, in part because life is short and bad, the usual Allen speech. (Again, how do these fucking people have planes? Especially an “artist.”) In another Truffaut callback, now to the end of Stolen Kisses, Vicky finds the suggestion bizarre and idiotic while Cristina, freewheeling in a believable enough way that it doesn’t feel strictly like Allen is casting her yet again as a fantastic object of lust, is intrigued by it and finds Juan Antonio attractive; looking out for her friend, Vicky grudgingly goes along on what turns out to be an eye-opening weekend for both women — Cristina falls ill just when she and Juan Antonio are all set to fuck, and Vicky finds herself drawn to him in the days that follow, when they eventually have sex outdoors, under the stars, which is another thing people apparently do a lot in Europe according to filmmakers like Allen and Richard Linklater. The encounter is quickly swept under the rug after the women return to Barcelona, but it lingers seemingly permanently in Vicky’s mind.

A quick word about Juan Antonio and Bardem’s portrayal — rather, his embodiment — of him. Throughout Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Hall and Johansson both stumble over Allen’s lazily written dialogue; as we’ll see, the general premise and arc of Allen’s story is solid and engaging despite its obvious debt to Jules and Jim, but he can no longer write people who don’t sound like fatalism-generating robots. It’s almost devastating to think back to Husbands and Wives and recall how believable its characters were, when compared to the obvious flatness and mouthpiece status of these much more glamorous-looking figures. Bardem, however, is completely undaunted by what he’s handed and makes his character — the least developed of the lot, on paper; think “tortured artist still in love with ex-wife” and you pretty much get the whole picture — not only believable but absolutely haunting. As an aside, when I first saw the film I had a dream about it several nights later in which I could swear that Juan Antonio was a real person I knew, surely because Bardem’s performance is so remarkable in its detail. Because critics are critics, everyone always looks for the “Woody Allen surrogate” in his films, even though Allen played a much broader pool of “types” of characters back when he acted than people seem to remember, and it was repeatedly charged that Bardem was filling in here for a fantasy role Allen would’ve played himself if he were young enough, perhaps because the part involves male wish-fulfillment love scenes with three different women and essentially being a desirable and exotic and interesting specimen of some sort of pure machismo, but I have trouble reconciling Bardem’s characterization with anything I could imagine seeing Allen convey; strong an actor as he could be, he never communicated pain especially well, whereas it’s written all over every movement, every word, every action that comes out of Bardem’s performance. Even his initial crazy proposition is effective because he is able to play the part as a fundamentally honest and open philanderer rather than just a creep, and his reading of the speech allows us to realize that its message of a random encounter being justified just because it would be fun is not wholly without merit. He is masterful in this film, and his performance would make it worthwhile if there were nothing else to recommend, but fortunately there is.

Vicky flirts with what she perceives as boundary-testing danger several times during the course of the film. After her fling with Juan Antonio is written off as a spur-of-the-moment gaffe, she nevertheless shows palpable jealousy when he calls Cristina and the two begin seeing each other regularly; but after Doug joins her in Barcelona she sets about with the routine of planning their wedding and their resolved future together in New York. Doug is already planning what sort of pets they’ll accumulate. But something in Vicky seems off; she blames it on the strange weekend with Cristina and Juan Antonio, but it seems just to have brought a nagging feeling of discomfort to the surface. She enjoys a short-lived friendship with a male classmate, Ben, with whom she goes and sees a screening of Shadow of a Doubt, and their connection seems more relaxed and healthy by far than either of her romantic entanglements in the film, but when he tries to hold her hand even this, a far less threatening gesture than Juan Antonio’s seduction, sets her off into guilt and self-doubt. Every bit of evidence we’re given in the film points to her connection to Doug being tied strictly to a feeling of security and a carefully planned life map, the tennis court and swimming pool all ready for use, and it seems as if she too is becoming troubled by this programmatic eventuality.

Unfortunately, neither Hall nor Allen is able to make Vicky a realistic character; she’s sympathetic, sure, but she feels like a pawn in an anecdote someone else is vaguely recalling, and like so many male screenwriters Allen’s idea of fleshing her out into a human being is to give her an arbitrary cultural interest (architecture) and have her state every single thing she’s supposedly thinking, while the narrator helpfully explains it once again on top of that. Allen is hardly the only writer guilty of this sort of facile characterization, and Hall simply doesn’t help with her overly earnest reading of the character. The only scene in which she seems absolutely like a fully alive person rather than a carefully manipulated piece of cardboard is one in which she doesn’t say a word: she is sitting at a dinner table with Doug and two of Doug’s friends, all engaged in idle (but in the case of Doug, hysterically overenthusiastic) lifestyle chatter about electronics and their future home. The camera slowly zeroes in on the absolute emptiness on Vicky’s face while she gradually stops listening and gets wrapped up in her own thoughts, a process signified by the fading out of the conversation on the soundtrack in favor of a Spanish guitar being played across the room. It’s a beautifully expressed, telling moment, and easily the most memorable involving Vicky, who seems consistently to be in a different film than the other characters.

Johansson is much more capable of turning the clunkiness of Cristina as written into an advantage; she’s still not a strong enough actress to sound completely at peace with Allen’s tiresome rhetoric (as we’ve seen, it takes something of a master nowadays), but she never suffers from the physical stiffness that plagues Hall, and has an air of spontaneity and effervescence that Allen can’t bury under dialogue. Cristina’s cycle is also more engrossing than Vicky’s for obvious reasons — she remains in the orbit of Juan Antonio for the duration of the film, temporarily moving in with him and assimilating in his bohemian circle. One night, his former wife Maria Elena — subject of a stormy scandal in the art world when she tried to kill him some time earlier, and for whom he openly still carries a torch — appears out of nowhere after a suicide attempt and Juan Antonio announces that she will move in until she’s back on her feet. The situation is tense and awful initially; one memorable shot tracks Johansson as she walks up a hill to get medicine out of her purse for Juan Antonio’s aching back, then pulls back down the path to reveal Maria Elena already attending to him. Maria Elena digs through Cristina’s luggage to try to find blackmail and mocks Cristina’s lack of ambition and creativity. The complexity and violence in the former couple’s history is palpable in all of their interactions, and their shouted arguments in Spanish — despite Juan Antonio’s continual needling at her to speak English in Cristina’s presence — are a constant distraction in the household until somehow an equilibrium takes hold, starting when Maria Elena discovers that Cristina, who’s long felt too inadequate to pursue any of her creative interests, is an amateur photographer and offers to help her hone her craft; a friendship and, eventually, a surprisingly natural triad is the outgrowth.

An accomplished Spanish actress usually relegated to repetitive and boring roles in American films, Penélope Cruz’s performance as Maria Elena quickly comes to dominate Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and the film is far better for her presence; she lifts it up immeasurably, lends it resonance and honesty. Her role in part is to bring Juan Antonio’s air of enigmatic sensuality (Ben Trout’s description is note-perfect: “Women want to be with him, men want to be him, he doesn’t wear shoes and lives in a hermetic maze of art studios”) down to earth by explaining that he adopted her style and attitudes in whole, and while in the film’s parlance Cristina’s presence allows Maria Elena and Juan Antonio to live together and fall back in love peacefully, it’s really the opposite — the strange presence of Juan Antonio’s ex-wife is what adds a layer of threat and intensity to the restless Cristina’s world, which in turn gives her an obvious and justified feeling of liberation and provides the sort of thrill she’s always seeking. Cruz’s performance is theatrical, galvanizing, scene-stealing, maybe even over the top, but when she’s paired with Bardem it works tremendously well, their chemistry much more obvious and effective than that Bardem shares with Johansson or Hall.

In the press leading up to the release of Vicky Cristina much was made of the brief love scene between Cruz and Johansson, with various inevitable jokes about the elderly horny male filmmaker hiring young actresses to go at it, but in actually watching the film the liaison in question is handled with admirable taste, and moreover it’s necessary to the film’s most praiseworthy element: its lack of judgment and sensationalism in its portrayal of a non-monogamous relationship, and a potentially long-term one at that. The two women do not have an extended, exploitative sex scene; they kiss once and briefly and we don’t see the rest, and thereafter they both begin to continue sleeping with Juan Antonio in tandem and together. To return to the “wish-fulfillment” phrase, it’s relatively easy to balk at this as another instance of adolescent male fantasy, but it’s perhaps the only sexual arrangement of characters in the film that makes complete sense and achieves a balance of sorts between lust and security. That it has an unorthodox structure is incidental, and treated as such (by the film and by everyone except Doug, who’s disgusted). The subtlety and restraint in the way the film examines an alternative lifestyle prevents us from gawking at it condescendingly; instead, it comes across as a touchingly natural moment of happiness for all three characters, and indirectly rebukes the idea of long-term monogamous relationships being the source of the only meaningful romantic love that exists, a welcome respite from the usual movie logic. In addition, rather than simply treating the arrangement as exotic and pornographic, it finds time for a scene of surprisingly moving dialogue in which Maria Elena expresses the warm feeling she gets when she hears Juan Antonio and Cristina having sex, an unexpectedly mature insight into the mechanics of a polyamorous household. And it seems agreeable enough that we actually feel disappointed when Cristina’s natural state of restlessness rears its head again and she feels she has to leave. This leads to a fascinating contradiction: the romantic viewer feels she should stay in this atypical, fruitful arrangement despite its unpredictability; the realistic viewer knows she is far too young and curious to tether herself even to something this sexy and offbeat. The only issue with this entire sequence is that it’s far too short, when in fact one wishes the entire story had been reframed to focus on the triad scenes and with Cruz as one of its primary fixtures.

To Allen’s credit, we’re not expected to believe that formerly cautious, pragmatic Vicky and adventurous Cristina have simply switched roles as the film has progressed; a single summer has just thrown a challenge to each of them. Cristina is leaving a situation that’s made her and two others happy and can’t rationally explain why. Meanwhile, Vicky is still troubled by her temptations and even sees Juan Antonio once after the breakup with Cristina (after which Maria Elena has also left again), perhaps a bit of an overcorrection against the dire situation she’s about to wander into with Doug, but when Maria Elena shows up in the midst of another violent tantrum this ends with Vicky being accidentally shot in the hand, and thus as the film fades out we’re rather bravely left with no sense that anyone is closer to contentment — and Vicky, for all the blandness she’s added to the narrative, is the most tragic figure of all, recognized by even other characters in the film (her relative Judy, played by the wonderful Patricia Clarkson, warns her as such, knowing the signs from her own loveless marriage) as being on the cusp of a fatal, life-altering error by marrying a sheltered egomaniac with whom she shares seemingly no real connection or happiness. In contrast to the subverted lives and cynical conclusions of Allen’s earlier Husbands and Wives, these characters don’t lend themselves to any sort of “you just never know” polemic whereby they all end up on the opposite course they expected. In fact, both Vicky and Cristina end up doing exactly what they expected they would — which is terrifying in its own way.

So much of the existential despair in Allen’s films seems phony and cartoonish, in part because the author is a millionaire who’s lived a probably excessively charmed life; but the finale of Vicky Cristina Barcelona is, like those of Blue Jasmine and the otherwise innocuous Melinda and Melinda, genuinely unsettling, and cuts to the heart of what the film is really about. Everyone is left in limbo; our last glimpse at every face in the cast is terribly sad. A cheaply cynical film wouldn’t permit the possibility that sustained happiness is even a real thing, would only emphasize the pain that opening one’s heart can bring. But a more realistically mournful one like this cuts deeper because it demonstrates that the greatest suffering and lack of fulfillment comes from fear of taking a leap outward from what one knows — one might argue that Cristina’s character doesn’t fit with this because she already hops into situations head-first and figures them out later, something for which Allen does not judge her, but it’s equally evident that a constant need for stimulation and for “the new” is her own version of the familiarity and status quo that Vicky seems to have chosen, for now. Like Juan Antonio’s initial offer to the ladies in the restaurant, the film is a challenge to everyone watching, to wonder whether we’re capable of moving past our own fundamental natures to explore a more satisfying and emotionally rich life just beyond our reach. The only caveat is that, no matter how bleakly endearing that ending is, Vicky Cristina Barcelona would be so much more probing if it were trimmed down and reconfigured just a little, instead of forcing the audience to chisel away until we find its essence.

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