Vicky Cristina Barcelona is not Woody Allen’s best movie, but it’s one of his most refreshing, especially when viewed in historical context. Allen seems to have suddenly freed himself from the pretenses and burdens he’s been imposing on himself over the last eight years. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is as successful, on its own modest terms, as anything he’s made in decades.
One of Vicky Cristina Barcelona’s best qualities is that it has no tricks, no agenda, and no tiresome conceit; it’s content to just vividly, effectively capture a moment in time. Everyone here feels like a real person in charge of their own destiny, not a cog in a screenplay or a slave to some half-baked gimmick. Their decisions and conversations are surprising and life-like.
Woody Allen was once the man who gave us Annie Hall, Isaac Davis, Hannah, Judah Rosenthal and Helen Sinclair, but he’s now gone nearly a decade without creating anyone you’re likely to care about after the end of their movie, or even a character whose name you can remember. Allen reached his nadir with Cassandra’s Dream, whose two leads were so undefined they could have been played with equal conviction by cardboard cutouts, but Vicky Cristina Barcelona focuses on four people with distinct, interesting personalities, each with their own desires, attitudes and mannerisms.
Woody Allen’s titles have a tendency to uncannily reflect their movies’ tone. Consider “Match Point” — a deliberate, portentous title leaden with meaning — and then consider “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” — a care-free collision of words that ends up sounding whole, and sort of pretty.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona’s simple story involves two young, American women spending a summer in Barcelona. For all its many virtues, the movie begins on a worrisome note. The camera lingers on the faces of our two protagonists — Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) — while a narrator bluntly, artlessly breaks down their personalities. Vicky and Cristina both sound unnervingly like stock characters from the Woody Allen script factory.
“Vicky had no tolerance for pain, and no lust for combat. She was grounded and realistic. Her requirements in a man were seriousness and stability. She had become engaged to Doug because he was decent and successful and understood the beauty of commitment.”
“Cristina, on the other hand, expected something very different out of love. She had reluctantly accepted suffering as an inevitable component of deep passion, and was resigned to putting her feelings at risk. If you asked her what it was she was gambling her emotions on, she would not have been able to say. She knew what she didn’t want, however, and that was exactly what Vicky valued above all else.”
However, while they first seem like stale archetypes, they quickly diverge. Rebecca Hall has what looks like the “harpy girlfriend” role, the type of woman that Woody Allen’s stand-ins leave in order to discover and improve themselves (think Amanda Peet in Melinda and Melinda, or Jason Biggs’ first girlfriend in Anything Else), but she’s more than that. Her passion for stability may seem like an indicator that she’s going to have a bland, routine arc about learning to loosen up, but her feelings on the matter are more complex than that. She’s neurotic, self-reflexive, and still trying to figure out what she wants.
Vicky is in Barcelona, in part, to do research for her Masters thesis on Catalonian identity (a degree which, I’m sure, is going to make her a hot commodity on the job market). Her obtuse over-education and anxious demeanor make her the most Woody Allen-like character since Jason Biggs in Anything Else.
Cristina, meanwhile, seems like another Nola (either one) — yet another aspiring actress with a perpetual sultry smile. Like Vicky, her initial characteristics resemble clichés, but they turn out to be more complicated and uncertain.
For the first time in what feels like forever, Woody Allen fills the movie with like real dialogue. Instead of broadcasting their motivations, people skirt issues, doubt themselves, and say things they might not mean. Allen even lets silence play a part. The actors get a chance to actually act, and I didn’t feel like I was listening to an audiobook version of the screenplay as I did in Cassandra’s Dream or even, to a lesser extent, Match Point.
The girls’ summer takes an adventurous turn when they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a romantically aggressive Barcelona native and abstract painter. On their first meeting, he offers to fly them on his plane to the small town of Oviedo, where “I will show you around the city, and we’ll eat well, we’ll drink good wine, we’ll make love.” When asked by Vicky who, exactly, will be making love, he responds with a line only Javier Bardem could sell: “hopefully the three of us.”
In fitting with their personalities as described by the narrator, Cristina is thrilled but Vicky is repulsed. She eventually relents, though — to the plane part and the wine part, at least, but she continues to resist the love-making part. After the three of them spend a day straight out of a Spanish tourism video, Juan Antonio and Cristina end up in bed together. Any actual love-making, though, is interrupted by violent illness in reaction to wine and shellfish.
Still feverish, Cristina spends the next day bed-ridden, meaning Juan Antonio and Vicky are now alone. Juan Antonio has a relationship with both women, but the one with Vicky is more interesting. She has it worked out in her head that what she’s really interested in is a quiet life with her nice, successful husband — a belief than Juan Antonio first challenges, but later inadvertently strengthens. On their day out together, she’s entranced by the beautiful homes, restaurants and music Juan Antonio introduces her to. All this culminates in a night of passion that goes well enough to cast some doubt on her hopes for the future.
Allen directs Barcelona (and the other Spanish towns they visit) with the same post-card sensibility he directed London with in Match Point. It doesn’t really feel like a living, breathing city, but rather a series of picturesque backdrops. For London that was sort of awkward, as it was about people who supposedly lived there, but it suits this movie’s locales perfectly. The characters, after all, are tourists as well, and they seem appropriately intoxicated by their environment. Few movies have done a better job of capturing the vacation mindset.
The scenes of the Spanish countryside are even more pristine. The breath-taking scenery, the hedonistic lifestyle being enjoyed within it, cinematography so warm and glowing it makes the movie look like an animate fashion commercial, and the presence of some of the world’s most beautiful people all combine to create a movie that’s often pornographically paradisiacal. An impressive achievement for Woody Allen, a man once considered the world’s foremost chronicler of human dissatisfaction.
Anyway, after their trip to Oviedo, Vicky meets up with her fiance, in Barcelona on a surprise visit from America, while Cristina continues to see Juan Antonio. Soon, the two live together in a bohemian paradise of painting, picnics and sex. Their relationship is more simplistically harmonious than Juan Antonio and Vicky’s — while Vicky has mixed feelings about what Juan Antonio represents, Cristina fawningly buys into every aspect of him. Artistic, mature, passionate, romantic, sensitive — he’s the epitome of everything she’s been drifting through life looking for.
Throughout the film up until this point, there have been many ominous, foreshadowing references to Juan Antonio’s ex-wife, Maria Elena, a fiery artist who both completed Juan Antonio and tore him apart. Their relationship was legendary and culminated with an attempted murder by Maria Elena. Juan Antonio is tormented by her memory, yet still in love with her. He says, “we are meant for each other and also not meant for each other” — a seemingly inane line, but Javier Bardem is somehow able to make it sound like a profound insight into the tumultuous nature of love. Most women, I imagine, would be put off by a man coming out of a near-homicidal marriage, but, as we’ve learned, Cristina considers drama and theatrics to be an important part of true love.
After nearly an hour of hearing about her, Maria Elena finally arrives, barging in on the domestic bliss of Juan Antonio and Cristina in the form of Penélope Cruz. Cruz has what could be called a Harry Lime role — after so much build-up, she’s already delivered an exciting performance without even saying a word. Her first arrival on screen is electric.
Maria Elena seems, at times, to be the erstwhile Judy Davis role but, at the risk of repeating myself, she too broadens and deepens as the movie goes on. Most refreshingly, Allen actually lets her be incredibly funny, preventing her passionate temper from being just a morbid character trait. The way she casually adds “after all, I have had thoughts of killing you” when talking to Cristina is as funny as anything in Scoop, as is her frequent refusal to speak in a language Cristina understands. Cruz emerges as the movie’s comic relief, and I do not say that as a criticism — her character is so funny and broad that, like the Greek chorus of Mighty Aphrodite, she provides a welcome reminder that this is supposed to be fun.
Soon, Maria and Cristina are able to work out their differences and the three of them live in an even more bohemian paradise of even more painting, even more picnics, and even sexier sex (involving a variety of different combinations of the three of them). It turns out, Cristina acts as a “missing ingredient” in the marriage of Juan Antonio and Maria Elena — with her (comparatively) down-to-earth presence, the three of them are able to live peacefully. In essence, Juan Antonio’s marriage to a beautiful young woman is “fixed” by the addition of another beautiful, even younger woman — a solution I don’t suggest you propose to your girlfriend or wife, unless you happen to be Javier Bardem.
Meanwhile, Vicky gets married to her fiance in a small ceremony in Barcelona, but continues to be haunted by her night with Juan Antonio. That brief affair — combined with Cristina’s stories of her blissful relationship ménage a trois — exposes the attractive side of a life she never previously wanted to be a part of. It was special enough to make her question what she wants in life. Her aunt (Patricia Clarkson), who is trapped in a “safe” marriage that has slowly seen the love seep out of it, adamently encourages Vicky to pursue a more passionate kind of life — if not with Juan Antonio, than with someone like him.
Cristina undergoes a similar revelation. Even though she’s living with two passionate artists in a boldly unconventional relationship arrangement, the ugly reality is that her situation is stable and the day-to-day details are routine. She decides to leave, and Juan Antonio and Maria Elena fall back into their dysfunctional, destructive habits. Newly single, Juan Antonio pursues Vicky once again. Thanks to her increasingly pushy aunt, Vicky obliges. When the two are alone at Juan Antonio’s house, however, Maria Elena returns and tries to shoot them both. Vicky realizes that, despite a newly discovered wild side, the free-love lifestyle is not worth the hysterics.
And so the girls’ summer in Barcelona comes to an end, and the film’s conclusion shows them walking through the airport. Their time in Spain was eventful, but ultimately, their situations are not that different from when they arrived. Vicky is married; Cristina is still longing for something more interesting. They don’t really learn anything about themselves, so much as they have their existing feelings get a bit more muddy and complicated. Unlike Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is not trying to make some big point, or arch itself towards a conclusion. That’s okay with me — Allen lets the events of the movie unfold naturally, and the characters seem like real people making their own decisions, which is not a bad thing.
If there is a take-away message from Vicky Cristina Barcelona, it’s that relationships don’t work but people keep trying anyway. It’s that same combination of pining optimism and gloomy pessimism that has run through Woody Allen’s movies for decades.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a shining, summer day of a movie — harmless, fun, and it doesn’t ask much of you, except that you enjoy it.
- “I think that you’re still hurting from the failure of your marriage and you’re trying to lose yourself in empty sex.”
“‘Empty sex’? Do you have such a low opinion of yourself?”
- Penélope Cruz won an Academy Award for Best Supporting actress — the first time someone had won an Oscar for acting in an Allen movie since Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite (1995).
- Interestingly, this film, Mighty Aphrodite and Bullets Over Broadway (which also won an Oscar, and got six other nominations) were all distributed by companies run, at the time, by Harvey and Bob Weinstein, who are notorious for running aggressive Oscar campaigns.
- Penélope Cruz also won a BAFTA award, an Independent Spirit award and a National Board of Review award.
- Javier Bardem and Rebecca Hall were both nominated for Golden Globe awards, but they lost to Colin Farrell (In Bruges) and Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky) — who, by the way, played a married couple in Cassandra’s Dream.
- Vicky Cristina Barcelona won the Golden Globe for “Best Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical” (even though it’s neither a comedy nor a musical).
- Shooting in Spain was not Woody Allen’s idea — like Match Point, it had more to do with financing opportunities. Also like Match Point, the script is a revamped version of one that was originally to be set in America.
- Ten percent of the budget was paid for by the city of Barcelona.
- It’s $96 million worldwide gross ($23 million of which came from the US) made Vicky Cristina Barcelona Allen’s biggest hit yet (narrowly edging out Match Point).
- Allen stated that he was baffled by this movie’s success and Cassandra’s Dream’s spectacular failure, as he (insanely, in my opinion) considered Cassandra’s Dream to be the better of the two.
- When she heard Allen was shooting a movie in Barcelona, Penélope Cruz contacted Allen independently and asked to be involved.
- Penélope Cruz doesn’t actually show up in the movie until 51 minutes in.
- Woody Allen wrote the parts of Juan Antonio and Cristina with Javier Bardem and Scarlett Johansson in mind.
- Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem married in real life two years after this movie was released.
- The movie’s unofficial theme song (“Barcelona” by Giulia y Los Tellarini) was discovered by Allen amidst his fan-mail. It plays over the opening credits and at several other points in the film.
- Woody Allen does not speak Spanish, and had not translator on set, so had no way of knowing if Bardem and Cruz were truly abiding by the screenplay.
- Part of the movie is set in Oviedo, a town which, incidentally, has this: It’s a life-size statue, installed in 2002 after Allen won the Premios Príncipe de Asturias, an annual award given out by the Prince of Asturias Foundation to “individuals, entities or organizations from around the world who make notable achievements in the sciences, humanities, and public affairs."
- Woody Allen provided a kinda funny (and not at all factual) on-set diary to The Guardian.
- The MPAA rated this movie PG-13 “for mature thematic material involving sexuality, and smoking.” It’s true: Penélope Cruz makes smoking look very mature and sexual in this movie.