Program Notes: Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
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"It wants what it wants."
Unless, of course, the heart can’t decide what it wants. Then you’ve really got problems.
Not knowing what we really want is very much the subject of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, by many accounts Allen’s best film in a decade.
This comedy is sexy, thoughtful, occasionally fiery and almost always amusing. And by virtue of being set in Barcelona, one of the most photogenic cities on Earth, it’s also gorgeous, radiating a hazy golden glow that makes you want to grab a seat in an outdoor café and drink wine while the world strolls by.
Vicky (British actress Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are American girls spending the summer in Barcelona. Vicky is wrapping up her graduate thesis on Catalonian culture (a device that gives Allen plenty of time to ogle examples of Antonio Gaudi’s sinuous architecture). Cristina is a failed filmmaker along for the ride.
They draw the attention of Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a painter who proposes a weekend of food, drink, flamenco guitar, and, oh yeah, sex.
Vicky – who has a fiancé waiting back home – is indignant. Just who is this Eurotrash gigolo?
"Life is short. Life is dull. Life is full of pain," Juan Antonio replies. "Why not do something special?"
This sounds perfectly reasonable to party girl Cristina. Vicky finally agrees to come along in the role of grumpy chaperone.
When Cristina is sidelined by food poisoning, Vicky reluctantly finds herself Juan Antonio’s weekend companion – and discovers beneath the sexual bravado a sensitive, cultured, and compassionate man.
I know what you’re thinking. Old guy Woody is getting his jollies by imagining a three-way, right?
Well, not quite. It’s more like a four-way. And his concern here isn’t sex but rather deciding what’s really important in life.
This issue is presented in a couple of ways. First there’s Vicky, a good, middle-class American girl who before Barcelona was perfectly content with her decent-guy Wall Street fiancé.
But Juan Antonio is all about passion. And Vicky, whose mind seems to work at warp speed (clearly, she’s Allen’s mouthpiece in this enterprise), finds herself being yanked back and forth between the competing siren calls of adventure and security.
Two thirds of the way through, Allen introduces a fourth major character who further deepens the plot and the film’s moral complexity.
This is Juan Antonio’s ex (Penélope Cruz), a painter with major mental problems. In fact she once stuck a knife in her husband’s chest.
Now she shows up on his doorstep, homeless, destitute, and on the verge of another breakdown.
Despite already sharing his house with Cristina, Juan Antonio takes her in. Their chaste, tortured relationship ("We were meant for each other... and not meant for each other") sends the film into a whole new realm, one that remains stubbornly comic through tragedy.
Cruz more than earns the Oscar she won for this performance. She’s sexy, dangerous and self-destructive, and yet exudes a childlike vulnerability.
She’s perfectly matched by Bardem, whose Juan Antonio mutates from stud to caregiver in a performance that’s packed with elements of the bittersweet and ruefully comic.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona may not be one of Allen’s very best, but it’s a solid second-tier effort, one that reminds us why throughout the ’70s and ’80s he was America’s most prolific, revered and adventurous filmmaker.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is part of the Searching the Psyche Through Cinema series sponsored by the Greater Kansas City and Topeka Psychoanalytic Center.
Following the screening Dr. Marilyn Metzl, a local psychoanalyst, and Julie Farstad, Kansas City Art Institute professor of painting, will discuss the film.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He's married to the former Ellen Vaughan; they are the proud parents of LA-based comedian, writer, director and TV personality Blair Butler. He used to be a dog person but now lives with two cats, thus demonstrating the flexibility of the human condition.