That was the first thought that struck me during my viewing of the Woodman’s latest, Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The film’s title is an appropriate stand-in for the movie itself: straightforward exposition laid bare. As Vicky Cristina Barcelona begins, we are treated to images of Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) traipsing off to the titular city. Alongside said images is a narration that lays everything bare with the most minimal effort: Vicky and Cristina are off together to Barcelona for a summer, they’re going to stay at Vicky’s parents’ friend’s place, Vicky is studying for her Masters, Cristina doesn’t know what’s next for her, et cetera. And there they are, five minutes into the film, the audience expectantly wondering what adventures will befall them?
The setup is just so perfect. Every film manipulates its audience; what separates the men from the boys is how well the manipulation is masked. A filmmaker who conceals it well is considered to be artful. By this measure, Woody—a God in my eyes, by the way—seems, in this film, to be about as artful as a sack of potatoes. It’s a criticism that Allen himself invites, like when he makes public comments to the effect that the only reason he makes movies is to distract himself from the terrifying death that awaits him. Allen has been saying things like this for years, and yet he has continued to produce significant work of recent (Match Point and, damn it, Anything Else, regardless of what anyone else thinks).
It almost becomes tempting to read a film like Vicky Cristina Barcelona from within this paradigm of the bleak worldview. It’s been oft-noted that Allen’s European cinematic travels have been marked by fantasy cities that only barely resemble their real-life counterparts. There’s a particularly offensive scene in VCB where, after a candlelit dinner, Vicky and her Spanish would-be lover, Juan Antonio Gonzalez (Javier Bardem), discuss what to do next. “Would you like to go listen to some guitar music?” Juan asks. And then, wouldn’t you know it, there they are on some outdoor patio in a garden, listening to a classical guitarist strumming soulfully amidst other formally dressed guests. As a character from The Purple Rose of Cairo might’ve exclaimed, if only life were like that!
If only life were like that, indeed. Allen’s misanthropy and depressive worldview seem too persistent to be byproducts of a personality cultivated for public appeal. No, the absurd level of fantasy inherent in a film like VCB seems indicative of the fact that the filmmaker wishes for a world where things could be better, prettier, nicer, sweeter—even if those things include arguments between lovers who might just kill each other. (Despite the threat of death that arises in moments of the film, there’s never any doubt that no one will die.) As Alvy Singer remarks in Annie Hall, “sometimes, you try to perfect in art what is imperfect in life.”
This is not to say that Woody’s latest is completely without merit. The performance by Bardem is absolutely captivating. He plays a painter who was almost murdered by his ex-wife Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), as the girls are informed when they see him at a gallery opening. This is disturbing to straight-laced Vicky, but to adventurous Cristina, it’s just the kind of thing she longs to hear. In the film’s best scene, Gonzalez propositions both of them at the same time in a restaurant. The way he balances his directness with his modesty is kind of brilliant, in that it sets up what is the most interesting question of the film: is Gonzalez a chauvinist artist who uses his work as a means for ruthless sexual conquest, or is he a genuinely free spirit who takes a free-love approach to the world? The film never resolved that question for me, but the fact that it was raised was more interesting than any answer it could have provided.
The girls go with Jose for the weekend, without agreeing to sleep with him. Cristina ends up getting sick while in bed with Jose, before anything can happen. As Cristina remains ill, Vicky and Jose start spending time with one another, and—shocker!—they end up warming up to one another, and then sleep together. By the way, Vicky’s married. Her fiancee calls her late at night to talk about buying a house in Westchester. Did I mention this is a Woody Allen movie?
As the summer moves on, Cristina ends up living with Jose, and Vicky’s fiancee comes out to visit, while Vicky broods that Jose has moved on to Cristina (he professes this is because he does not want to break up Vicky’s marriage). The film really hits the rocks when Maria Elena comes to live with Cristina and Jose, and a triangular romantic relationship emerges. Woody Allen may have once had significant insight into the makeup of original romantic configurations, but those days seem to have passed him. The depiction of the relationship between the three lovers borders on the absurd.
Towards the end of Vicky Cristina Barcelona, some interesting question do get raised. These are found in the relationship between Vicky and Jose. But they’re questions Woody Allen has posed so many times that it amounts to their own negation. Do we marry for stability, or for adventure? How difficult is it to escape the chains of bourgeois living? Are the options for the upper-middle-class in regard to their happiness really so bleak?
I’m all for an artist continuing to mine material he’s previously worked with, continuing to examine subject matter so rich that ten lifetimes could never uncover all of its secrets. But one has to wonder whether Woody’s continual posing of the same questions over and over again comes from persistence or laziness. Surely Match Point should have closed the book (for him, anyway) on such themes, yet he pursued them in Cassandra’s Dream (even worse than this film) and again here. I’ve never been a fan of taking an artist’s authorial mindset into account, but when it comes to Woody’s next film, I might not be able to stop myself.
Zachary Wigon is a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. In addition to writing and directing short films, he also writes film criticism for FilmCatcher and maintains a cultural theory blog, Between Fear & Commitment.