By Scott Martin
Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Spain / USA, 2008
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
My favorite thing about Woody Allen movies is hearing the actors speak the words; it’s always with a sense of adoration, and there are usually shades of performers who have spoken these words in the past. Allen’s scripts are performed, no matter the quality, with gratitude. Such is most definitely the case with this film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. If you’re intrigued by the title, it’s simple enough, about as simple as The Texas Chain Saw Massacre in that there’s a massacre committed with a chain saw in Texas; in this, Vicky and Cristina go to Barcelona. However, there is a bit of a deeper meaning.
There’s Vicky (Rebecca Hall), the American student getting her Master’s in “Catalan Identity.” What will she do with it? Teach, work at a museum, something like that. She’s engaged to marry Doug (Chris Messina), the stable, charming young gentleman who has a bright future in business. Then there’s Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), the American waif with no direction, and who is completely at peace with that. She’s impulsive, stubborn in her impulsiveness, and quite willing to discover new things on her own; she’d just like it if Vicky came along. They are invited by relatives, Mark and Judy (Kevin Dunn and Patricia Clarkson), to spend the summer in Barcelona. Obviously, they jump at the chance and arrive as soon as possible. There, at an art gallery, Cristina spies a man across the room; he is Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) and he’s a painter, a free spirit. He’s also recently divorced from Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), his violent muse. She is Barcelona, if you will.
Therein lies the deeper meaning – it isn’t just that Vicky and Cristina go to Barcelona; the title could also mean the three women that pass through Juan Antonio’s life: Vicky, Cristina, and the heart of Barcelona herself, Maria Elena. It paints a broader, more delicate picture of the proceedings.
A note: a large part of the film regards Vicky and Cristina’s slightly poor understanding of the Spanish language. There are two versions of the film, one with subtitles and one without. Watching the film without the English subtitles can allow the viewer to see things from the girls’ perspective better, without having the language translated. You can still tell what’s going on, because Bardem and Cruz’s performances are so body language-based and physically motivated, so you won’t lose anything. In the subtitled version, you’ll know that Maria Elena tells Juan Antonio how close to perfection they came with their relationship, and you’ll know that he complains about “nursing her tics and phobias” and how she smothers him with her problems. You’ll hear her talk about wanting to die, but, without the subtitles, you’ll see it from the perspective of Cristina, who can’t understand the language, and Vicky, who barely does, and you’ll feel it all just the same. Nothing is lost in translation.
That’s the beauty of Woody Allen as a director: he understands the value of perception and knows that silence can speak louder than any voice, so, through the beautiful tour he gives us of the city, there’s a unique twinge he paints onto this film. Parts of it hurt, parts of it are uplifting; all of it is medicinal.
Upon its release, this was the fourth film to take place outside of Allen’s native New York settings. With his European films, he has found a muse in Johansson. She’s been with him through Match Point (2005), Scoop (2006), and now this film, and hopefully she’ll return for another outing. She’s at her best speaking his words and under his thumb, but he’s the ultimate actor’s director, valuing their creative abilities and allowing improvisation suited to the moment. In fact, the performances in this film feel so natural it’s hard to tell what’s improvised and what isn’t, another beauty of Allen’s scripts. He’s given us lesser films before, but when he’s completely on his game, there isn’t anyone better. I sincerely consider him the best screenwriter alive.
The contrasts between the characters are ultimately what make this film feel so involved with the audience. We are flies on the walls of their bedrooms and dining rooms. One particularly intimate moment involves Cristina’s bisexual encounter with Maria Elena in a darkroom, developing photos Cristina has taken at the artistic urging of Maria Elena. Both she and Juan Antonio push Cristina to further her art, and Cristina becomes the bandage, unwillingly, to Juan and Maria’s tumultuous relationship. Vicky is left recovering from her brief affair and picking up the pieces after her marriage to Doug. The interweaving relationships of this film are classic Woody Allen, and it’s fair to say this is his strongest meditation of the 2000s on human neurosis; this and the brutally dark and violent Match Point, two of the finest and best composed films of his later career.
Contact the author: ScottMartin@MoviesIDidntGet.com