Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Produced and distributed by The Weinstein Company
Written and directed by Woody Allen

Warning: In the review that follows, I have given away any number of plot points of the film.


In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody Allen has traveled farther from his beloved Manhattan than ever before but not an inch from his perennial obsession: the ordeal of passion in a world of regimented emotions.

Allen has made great comedies out of the fooleries that befall passion’s victims, but here he’s turned serious and seems to have lost his focus.

His narrative concerns two young women summering in Barcelona: Vicky, a student of Catalonia, and Cristina, a student of, well, herself.  When Vicky was 14, she fell in love with the city’s architecture by the Catholic visionary Antoni Gaudi, especially his still unfinished church, El Temple Expiatori de la Sagrada Família (The Church of the Holy Family) begun in 1883 and scheduled to be completed in 2026.  The structure is to play its part in Vicky’s master’s thesis on “the Catalan identity.”  This sounds impressive until we learn she speaks neither Catalan nor Spanish.  Cristina, who is not as ambitiously intellectual as Vicky, is easily her friend’s equal when it comes to wholly unearned self-importance.  After breaking up with her most recent boyfriend, she’s made a film to answer a simple question: “Why is love so hard to define?”  Lasting all of 12 minutes, her on-screen investigation, she glumly admits, failed to find an answer.  We get the picture.  Vicky and Cristina are spoiled Americans: One is driven; the other, drifting.

Allen has chosen his actresses well.  As Vicky, Rebecca Hall exudes responsibility.  Tall and angular, she’s as nervously alert as a high-stepping crane.  Scarlett Johannsen is, as always, her vacant self with her dream-bleared eyes and plump, pouting mouth ever open in mild surprise.

Allen’s American actresses are thoroughly upstaged by his Catalan setting.  His scenes frequently and emphatically include shots of Gaudi’s art nouveau architecture with its surreal candle-drip exteriors.  And yet, curiously, he never clearly articulates Gaudi’s role.  No less an observer than Evelyn Waugh might have helped him on this score.  In 1929 Waugh described Gaudi’s Holy Family church as looking like a “clumsily iced cake,” improbably rendering the “evanescent” in the medium of stone.  Of Gaudi’s other buildings, Waugh wrote that their audacious modernist “undulations” reminded him of “a rough sea petrified.”  Waugh meant these bizarre comparisons as compliments to an artist whom he judged to have honestly rendered the passionate, comic confusion of the modern condition.  Since Allen’s film is all about the attempt to come to terms with contemporary passion, it would seem he meant to use Gaudi’s works analogically to celebrate wayward yearning in stone.  Yet his camera often seems content with glimpsing Gaudi’s works as little more than a fortuitous background to his story.  None of his characters, for instance, ever pronounces the name of the Holy Family church.  This is odd since the church naturally provides a starkly ironic counterpoint to the profane and literally degenerate anti-family ménage they establish in the film’s third act.  Perhaps Allen wants us to connect the dots for ourselves.  His script seems severely underwritten, and his own remarks have been ambiguous, inviting viewers to read into his film whatever they want.  There’s only one certainty: The movie exists at the intersection of art and passion.

At an exhibition, the ladies spy an artist slouching elegantly against a wall—Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), sporting a carefully maintained three-day beard.  Not long ago his wife stabbed him in a fit of furious jealousy, provoking a messy, well-publicized divorce.  So authentic, so passionate—not the dull, lawyerly crafted American canard: irreconcilable differences.  Later, spotting him in a restaurant, Cristina keeps looking over at him until he finally approaches their table and, without preliminaries, invites them to spend the weekend with him in Oviedo, where they will eat well, drink good wine, and make love.  Vicky sarcastically inquires who will be making this love.  “Why, all of us, hopefully,” the sleepy-eyed Lothario replies.  Laughing at his audacity, Vicky points out that, even if she were remotely interested, she is engaged.  Cristina, on the other hand, likes the idea.  “At least he’s not a factory-made model,” she confides to her cautious friend.  Vicky’s lawyer fiancé, with his conventional good looks and dutiful attentiveness to her whims, is clearly a product rolled off the all-American assembly line.  An hour later, Juan is flying the girls to his proposed idyll through a thunderstorm.  Here as elsewhere, Allen equates passion with danger.  Well, he is 73.

Upon reaching Oviedo, Cristina is stricken with a very unromantic case of food poisoning that forces her to take ingloriously to her hotel bed quite alone.  This leaves Vicky in Juan’s caring hands.  He graciously shows her the city’s art and architecture.  At one point, he takes her to the Cathedral of San Salvador.  As they stand before a sculpted crucifix, Vicky remarks, “So you’re religious.”  No, not at all.  Juan admires the art for its own sake.  Existence, he assures her, has no meaning.  In this absence of purpose, he explains, “The trick is to enjoy life.”  Vicky is charmed by Juan’s neopagan seize-the-day philosophy and drinks a bit too much wine at dinner, the better to succumb to his attentions.  The next morning, she is a new woman.  When her suddenly tedious fiancé makes his daily call to tell her how much he loves her, she pretends her cell phone is losing its signal and cuts him off.  But it is to no purpose: Cristina has recovered, and Juan has rushed to her side.  He soon achieves his original aim of sleeping with both Americans—only, sadly, not at once.  Impulsively, however, Cristina moves in with him.

Enter Juan’s former wife, Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), an emotional maelstrom wrecking all in her path.  She is mad in both senses of the word, hurling insults at Cristina and threatening Juan with yet another knife.  But what is Juan to do?  She has recently attempted suicide.  He must take her in.  When Cristina reproaches Juan for allowing Maria into their ménage, he tries to explain his continuing commitment to his former wife.  He has always loved Maria, but there was something missing.  “It’s like a recipe.  If one ingredient is missing, it doesn’t work.  Like, like . . . salt.”

Cristina soon finds out what her lover means.  She is the missing ingredient in Juan’s relationship with the mad Maria, the dash of salt that will make the recipe come together.  As the days pass, Maria, an artist herself, teaches the American the finer points of photography.  As she does so, she reveals that she’s warmed by the sounds of her former husband making love to Cristina at night.  Then one afternoon, while working in the blood-red light of the darkroom, the women share a passionate kiss.  Soon they are double-teaming Juan.  The ever-respectable Allen has satisfied himself with filming the three engaging in some preliminary canoodling, leaving their presumably more ardent bedroom antics unseen.  In a perverse way this episode suggests that the unformed, infantile Cristina has become the child Maria and Juan so conspicuously do not have, the missing ingredient in their relationship.  Hence Maria’s fury a couple of weeks later, when Cristina finally regains her wits and decides to leave their household. Maria screams over and over, “She’s a spoiled sh-t!”  She is like a formerly doting but foul-mouthed mother upon learning her favorite child, whose diapers she once so attentively changed, has heartlessly deserted her.

I don’t know that Allen intends this reading of events.  If not, I suspect he’s wandered into territory he doesn’t fully grasp.  All of his films have concerned the fragility of romance.  Because his lovers, married or not, almost never have children, they are “free” to focus interminably and quite destructively on their relationships.  It’s the New York affair—15 minutes making love, followed by 45 on the edge of the bed discussing its meaning, love’s sure death sentence.  Those who are inconvenienced by offspring are portrayed as hopelessly trapped in middle-class hypocrisy when it comes to their true feelings.  Take the dentist protagonist of Crimes and Misdemeanors.  When his mistress threatens the stability of his family, he has her killed.  In Vicky Cristina the obverse obtains.  Children, or the prospect of children, threaten to kill headlong passion.  When Vicky’s fiancé calls from America to propose unexpectedly that they marry in Barcelona, he seems at first uncharacteristically romantic.  But then he goes on to say how great it will be to tell their children that they did something so impulsive in their youth.  You can see Vicky’s face sag at the mention of children.

So, if children are inimical to passion, what is the lesson?  Obviously, don’t reproduce.  Seems more than a little self-indulgent, not to mention socially impractical.  Yet it is the personal preference of so many of today’s young Europeans that demographers increasingly question their civilization’s survival.  But if you are convinced that life has no meaning and that the trick is to enjoy it while you can, then there is nothing stopping you from making a case for untrammeled hedonism.  This may mean using a perversely willing surrogate to make up for the missing ingredient of offspring, but, hey, when it comes to sex, the more the merrier, right?  A little icky?  Well, Allen’s films are often autobiographical, and considering his current wife was his stepchild while he was married to Mia Farrow, it’s difficult not to draw the connections.

And yet there is something more here—Maria Elena, who is convinced that “only unfulfilled love can be romantic.”  The result of that proposition is madness, which, in Maria Elena’s case, is at once homicidal and suicidal, the complete death wish.  She’s been left by her hedonist husband to search everywhere for a missing ingredient that she all the while carries within her.  Cruz renders Maria’s predicament quite convincingly, with her bedraggled hair and scowling mouth.  Although far prettier, she reminded me of Anna Magnani in one of her tempestuous roles from the 50’s, a woman so besieged by her misdirected sexuality that she is ready to cut someone’s heart out.  Cruz makes Maria undeniably beautiful at moments, but she’s more often a curdled, venomous harridan whose inability to identify what she wants has left her volcanically angry at the world, in general, and Juan, in particular.  Denied the prospect of offspring, she is utterly lost in what used to be called depravity.  Cruz’s performance nearly saves the film by bringing into the foreground the consequences of pursuing passion for its own sake.  She takes the hammer of emotional truth to the self-indulgent tolerance the other characters so urbanely affect.

Allen seems to have rethought his earlier commitment to pursuing passion wherever it leads.  But like Cristina, he still doesn’t seem to know what he wants.  He clearly has not taken the next obvious step away from the madness of self-involvement.  One answer to his confusion could have been found in the film’s background.  It is implicit in the ongoing dedication of those constructing Gaudi’s Church of the Holy Family, which stands in vivid contrast to Juan’s anti-family.