NARRATOR: Vicky sat with Cristina and Juan in a romantic Spanish restaurant drinking red wine. Juan had randomly approached and convinced both Vicky and Cristina to travel with him to his vacation home for the weekend. Vicky, who is more conservative than Cristina, doesn’t appreciate Juan’s aggressive Spanish sensuality. So, with her second or third drink, she speaks her mind.
VICKY: When I drink, I become frank…
While this is not an exact replication of an excerpt from the Vicky Cristina Barcelona script, it is the outline of a scene that well-encompasses the objective for Woody Allen’s most recent story of love.
Barcelona is a slightly drunk drama, by nature, that capitalizes on both Allen’s storytelling creativity along with its unsettling frankness.
More like Match Point than Bananas, Allen takes himself out of the spotlight and allows Javier Bardem to take the reins of the lead male role as both the victim of love and the instigator of love’s frustrations. The story follows two women, Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) and Vicky (Rebecca Hall), as they take a vacation to Barcelona for the summer. Vicky is engaged and soon to be married, while Cristina is free to explore the romance that permeates the city.
While at dinner one evening, the women are approached by Juan Antonio (Bardem), an artist bursting with confidence, who asks them very abruptly to travel with him to a resort for the weekend so they can engage in a threesome. Vicky is outraged, but Cristina, although never agreeing to sex, drags Vicky with her to appease her desires for risk and uncertainty.
While at the resort, a love triangle ensues. First Cristina and Juan Antonio. Then Vicky and Juan Antonio. And things get more and more complex as Vicky deals with issues of a templated boyfriend and life, Cristina deals with issues of falling hard for Juan Antonio, and Juan Antonio’s crazy ex-wife Maria (Penelope Cruz) reenters the picture.
What’s so beautiful about the film is how Allen uses the simplicity of its Barcelona setting and lifestyle to emphasize the complexity of its characters’ love connections. This point isn’t difficult to see (after all, the title isn’t a sentence, but rather three individual words that, on their own, vaguely describe the film’s plot). However, it is a difficult feat to accomplish. Allen uses a consistent blend of underlying ukulele music, soft edits and transitions, and a gentle narration in order to bring tranquility to the film’s complicated substance. Cristina mentions how simple and relaxing the Spanish lifestyle is. Consequently, the sharp realities of the relationships we, the audience, are personally engaged in never quite penetrate deep enough to leave a scar (or Scarlett).
With that said, Barcelona may be the only place believable enough for some of the content of the story to have occurred. If Allen decided to film in his usual New York setting, not only would the complexity of the characters be drowned out by the fast-paced city life, but Juan Antonio’s character may have been maced several times. Instead, in his homeland, he doesn’t come off as a predator, but rather, as my girlfriend put it, “sexy as hell.” (I then made sure to remind her that he was the psychopathic killer from No Country for Old Men. But she didn’t seem to care).
The way Allen writes his characters – to be enamored with people and relationships – is unsettling because he doesn’t sugar coat it for us. He approaches love as if it’s being handed out at a county fair. For example, in one scene Cristina and Maria are fighting over Juan Antonio, but in the next they’re passionately kissing. When Cristina tells Vicky and Vicky’s husband about her experience, the two couldn’t get beyond seeing it as an expression of lesbianism. They so badly wanted to categorize it as something, while Cristina described it as just being in the moment with another beautiful person. It didn’t matter to Cristina if it was a man or a woman. It was just an act of love.
Thematically, it’s all very frank, and because its rather complicated issues are handled so nonchalantly, our conditioning won’t allow us to become too attached to the characters. We want to, but it so happens to be one of the rare instances where too much character development would be overwhelming for our senses and emotions. Instead, we take the characters and their personal battles in stride. And when we combine them all together in the end, we still feel a sense of closure.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a beautiful movie, and I foresee yet another Best Original Screenplay nomination for Allen. 3-1/2 stars (out of four) for Vicky Cristina Barcelona.