“This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ’Doc, my brother’s crazy. He thinks he’s a chicken.’ And the doctor says, ’Well, why don’t you turn him in?’ And the guy says, ’I would, but I need the eggs.’ Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships. You know, they’re totally irrational and crazy and absurd, but I guess we keep going through it, because… most of us need the eggs.”—Woody Allen (Annie Hall)
Woody Allen ended his Oscar-winning Annie Hall with that joke, one of the most unconventional yet appropriate odes to love to ever be committed to film. Since then, he has spent nearly 30 years trying to recapture the mix of humor and pathos that have helped make Annie Hall such an enduring classic, and, with Vicky Cristina Barcelona, he has finally found it again. If not quite up to the level of Annie Hall or his masterpiece Manhattan, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is nonetheless Allen’s strongest, most philosophically and morally profound film since 1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors.
If Allen’s last near-great work, 2005’s Match Point, was the result of a shift in location to London from his beloved New York, then Vicky Cristina Barcelona’s success may be partially attributable to yet another move, this one to Barcelona, Spain. While the gloomy English landscape brought out Allen’s pessimistic side in the atheistic Match Point and existential Cassandra’s Dream, Barcelona seems to have rekindled his inner romantic.
Of course, even romantic Woody Allen comes with a heaping side-order of questions and doubt. The film seems to be intended as a parable on human restlessness and the paradoxes inherent in the desire for both stability and romantic love. It is at times a happy film, but it is also often an uncertain and sad one. It is told through an omniscient third-person narrator who recounts the actions and thoughts of the protagonists in the deadpan monotone of an author at a book reading. It’s a technique that I usually find insufferable, but it works here, functioning as a representation of the story’s status as a universal moral tale.
Vicky and Cristina, played by Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson, are two college friends who take an extended vacation to Barcelona in order to unwind. Vicky is a straight-laced graduate student writing her dissertation on Catalan culture. She is engaged to Doug (Chris Messina), a wealthy lawyer from Manhattan (his goofy name and Messina’s performance make clear that he is intended as a decent, but fundamentally unimpressive man). Cristina is the free spirit, the aspiring photographer attracted to the artistic, the romantic, the tragic. She has no real desires or long-term goals; she only knows that stability isn’t part of the plan.
The women’s roles in Allen’s fable seem clear. Vicky represents the desire for stability, to have a predictable life, to know that when you wake up your pillows are still stuffed with the softest goose down and that your dull but loving spouse is still sleeping comfortably beside you. Cristina represents the desire for excitement, for constant surprise, for passionate romance and tours through the artistic hotspots of Spain. Such excitement comes in the form of Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a handsome and charming painter who invites the two girls on a private trip to his home town. Cristina is excited, Vicky is unimpressed, and by the end of the trip both have been successfully seduced by Juan Antonio.
Back in Barcelona, Cristina and Juan Antonio begin a love affair. Doug comes to visit Vicky, who has begun having romantic feelings toward Juan Antonio and doubts about her engagement. Vicky’s fears are confirmed by the relationship between her married friends Mark (Kevin Dunn) and Judy (Patricia Clarkson). Judy confides to Vicky that she has not loved Mark for many years and is cheating on him with his work associate.
The relationship between Mark and Judy is a secondary, but crucial aspect of the story. It is Allen’s way of showing the possible end result of sacrificing one’s happiness to stability: a comfortable but unsatisfying life from which there may be no escape. There is no such representation of the long-term results of Cristina’s lifestyle because it is defined by the lack of a predicted destination.
Instead, Allen introduces a new ingredient into Cristina’s life. When Juan Antonio’s passionate but unstable wife Maria (Penélope Cruz) attempts suicide, she comes to live with him and Cristina and soon becomes an equal romantic partner in the relationship. Allen presents the unorthodox relationship as pleasant and exciting, but refuses to resort to explicit representations of sex. A sexual encounter between Cristina and Maria would pass for tame on primetime television, and the heavily-touted menage-a-trois amounts to nothing more than a three-way kiss in a red-tinted darkroom.
Ultimately, the point seems to be that no amount of happiness is ever enough for someone like Cristina, who eventually grows restless in her relationship and moves out. She is happy in her decision, but Allen is not so sure. People like Cristina will always be looking for new and more stimulating experiences, and Allen seems to suggest that their lives are no more fulfilling than the alternative.
Despite this heady thematic material, the film is frequently very funny and ranks close to Allen’s most successful romantic comedies. Cruz, especially, emerges as true star, harnessing a fiery temper and rapid-fire Spanish dialogue to maximum comedic effect. Among the stars, Hall makes a bigger impression than the effective but uneven Johansson, if only because her character is allowed more complexity, by necessity, than Johansson’s.
As in Annie Hall, however, the humor is always in service of the material, resulting in the most moving film Allen has made in some time. The message, to extend the metaphor, seems to be that although we do need the eggs, once we get them we’re not always satisfied with what we find. It’s a sad truth of human relationships, and Vicky Cristina Barcelona’s great strength is in bringing it to light.
Matt Noller lives and studies film and journalism in Athens, Georgia. You can also read him at Uh, movies.