Almost as fanciful as the Antoni Gaudí architecture of its Barcelona setting, Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona is at once one of the year’s most charming and sly works—as well as perhaps the saddest film in the filmmaker’s entire oeuvre. This isn’t the specialized sadness of an intricately plotted film like Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Rather, this is the generalized sadness of a 72-year-old filmmaker exploring the possibility of any kind of lasting romantic happiness in this world. It may seem less shattering than Crimes and Misdemeanors, but its central concern is more relevant to the average viewer. After all, very few of us are ever likely to have an inconveniently aggressive mistress knocked off, but most of us have at least had a brush with the pursuit of romantic happiness. The cynical conclusion of the 1989 film is disturbing. The conclusion of this latest film is quietly heartbreaking.
There’s little in the way of actual plot in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The film merely charts the events of a summer spent in Barcelona by Vicky (Rebecca Hall, The Prestige) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson). The two are an almost perfectly matched pair, except for the fact that Vicky is pragmatically realistic and Cristina is a romantic with a grand view of herself and what she wants out of life. In a sense, they complete each other. Vicky envies her friend’s courage to live life the way she wants, while Cristina (though she may not quite know it) yearns to experience Vicky’s apparent consistency.
The drama comes when the two meet a charming—but not wholly respectable—painter, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who immediately proposes they all go away for the weekend. The impulsive Cristina is quick to agree. Vicky is aghast, and only agrees to the arrangement in order to protect Cristina—at least that’s what she thinks. Almost nothing goes exactly as planned. As soon as Cristina is about to succumb to Juan Antonio’s charms, she gets sick, leaving a reluctant Vicky alone in his company. But Juan Antonio turns out to be nothing like what Vicky had imagined, and she’s soon smitten with him—an inconvenience of some note since she’s engaged to marry the rather dull but stable Doug (Chris Messina, Made of Honor) at the end of the summer. As a result, both Vicky and Juan Antonio keep their affair from Cristina, who drifts into a serious relationship with Juan Antonio and moves in with him.
The problem is that Juan Antonio’s volatile ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), attempts suicide and ends up coming to live with Juan Antonio and Cristina. None of this should have come as a surprise to Cristina, since Juan Antonio has talked way too much about Maria Elena for anyone to believe their relationship is at an end in his own mind. What looks like an insurmountable problem on the horizon turns out to have a potentially happy solution—one that occurs in a perfectly natural manner (it bears little relation to the hubbub of publicity that surfaced when it was announced that a ménage à trois figured in Allen’s new movie). But things don’t stop there. Nothing in life—and certainly nothing in Woody Allen’s realm—is ever that easy. However, it would be better to leave the rest of the events to the viewer.
In many respects, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a departure for Allen. The tone is different, and there’s no obvious Allen on-screen alter ego (both girls qualify at different points). The events are less immediate, and there’s a sense of the sadder-but-wiser filmmaker sitting back and sympathetically observing the proceedings—realizing the impossibility of interfering. The characters are all observed with a certain fondness—even when Cristina is at her most affected (having to rationalize herself into being the sophisticate she thinks she is, and then feeling proud of herself for succeeding), there’s no hint of condemnation.
At the same time, it’s a very Woody Allen film, with all the quirks. The Barcelona backgrounds are just as much characters in the film as the Manhattan backgrounds in his New York pictures. They’re not just pretty; they help to define and direct the action. They imbue the film with the romance the characters fall prey to. For that matter, who but Allen would manage to make a film in Barcelona where the protagonists end up at a screening of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt (1943) at the local repertory cinema?
If the film falls short of the somber, reflective masterpiece it might have been, I suspect that’s the fault of an often unnecessary narration that insists on telling us what everyone’s feeling at any given moment. Most of it could have been dispensed with, and the flat tones with which Christopher Evan Welch (The Hoax) delivers it all makes it just that much more intrusive. Perhaps if Allen had done the narration himself it would have had the tone necessary to make it work, but he didn’t and it doesn’t—and it’s this that keeps this otherwise exquisitely crafted film from being the small masterpiece it very nearly is. Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving sexuality and smoking.