Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Woody Allen's Vicky Cristina Barcelona Movie Review

Over the decades Woody Allen has continually returned to the same themes again and again, revisiting them with different characters and settings, always closing his films with a satisfactory resolution, but continuing the ambiguity in his next outing. Chief among these themes has been love, passion and fidelity.

His 2008 film Vicky Cristina Barcelona looks at two sides of the same coin in Vicky (Rebecca Hall), the pragmatist looking for a stable dependable love which she has in her fiancé, Doug, and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), the impetuous free spirit open to new experiences and more willing to find love in whoever comes along. The two are best friends recently arrived in Barcelona – Vicky studying Catalan identity and Cristina tagging along for adventure. Luckily for them and for the audience Vicky has a family connection to Mark and Judy (Kevin Dunn and Patricia Clarkson), who give them a place to stay in their picturesque villa.

On one of their first evenings out they are approached and propositioned in a restaurant by the swarthy Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). He offers to fly them in his private plane to Oviedo for a weekend of sightseeing, great Spanish food and lovemaking. Of course Cristina is up for it and Vicky, the more cautious of the two, is hesitant but ultimately obliges the whimsy of her friend.

Once in Oviedo, fate steps in and strikes Cristina ill, which clears the way for Vicky, who should mix with Juan Antonio like oil and water, to get to know him a little better. Vicky goes against her nature to engage in a night of passion with Juan Antonio, but once they’re all back in Barcelona Cristina is the one who starts a romantic relationship with him, eventually taking up residence in his house.

Allen seems to have been inspired by the Mediterranean city to employ camera and editing techniques not often found in his work, possibly the result of working with Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe. There’s a style to his work which captures the romanticism of the city in a way that distinguishes it from the rough edges of Allen’s common settings of first New York and then London more recently.

For Cristina and Juan Antonio things settle into a comfortable arrangement while Vicky can’t stop thinking about her foray into a world normally inhabited by other people. When Vicky catches Judy in an compromising moment with another man, Judy takes the opportunity to encourage her to follow her passions instead of her head. Here we see Allen’s cynicism coming out in his screenplay as he can’t ever allow for the possibility of a long-lasting happy relationship or marriage. In his world, all marriages eventually grow tiresome and routine. This is not exactly a criticism of his writing as much as an observation. Judy, who finds herself unsatisfied in her marriage to Mark, attempts a vicarious outlet in Vicky by pushing her toward Juan Antonio.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is marked by a truly wonderful Allen screenplay in the classic sense. It’s not only some of his best dialogue writing in many years, not just that it’s smart and witty in all the right places, but it’s also an interesting and complete story that gets back to the kind of personal relationship woes that used to distinguish his earlier films.

A whirlwind of upheaval is thrown into the mix and new life is breathed into the film with the arrival of Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), Juan Antonio’s ex-wife who has just attempted suicide. When Juan Antonio allows her to move in with him and Cristina, there is some tension at first. Maria Elena is the embodiment of the way outside forces act on our personal relationships to alter them. And Allen’s characters are usually not strong-willed enough to resist temptation. Cruz is absolutely marvelous as Maria Elena, delivering pitch-perfect rapid-fire dialogue. Her Best Supporting Actress Oscar was well-deserved.

What’s so interesting is to see how the movie struggles with the difference between logic and passion and the way passion seems to trump logic, but not always. Vicky makes one passionate decision that changes everything and later Cristina makes a logical decision which has disastrous effects for Juan Antonio and Maria Elena, who initially divorced because, as he explains, there was one key element missing that would have made their marriage work. The film is less fatalistic than other Allen films, suggesting there can be a workable balance between the two approaches to love and in fact that it’s necessary to have both.


  1. Sadly, I can't remember the logical decision. And now you've made me need to see it again. Bastard.


    In my estimation, the logical decision was breaking up with Juan Antonio and Maria Elena because she saw how in love they were and she herself felt more like an outsider. After her exciting new sexual/romantic adventure she was ready to return to "normalcy."