Favourite / Film / Film with Female Lead / Gender Politics / Philosophy / Review

Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)


“Vicky had no tolerance for pain and no lust for combat. She is grounded and realistic. Her requirements in a man were seriousness and stability. She had become engaged to a man because he was decent and successful and understood the beauty of commitment.

Cristina, on the other hand, expected something very different out of love. She had reluctantly accepted suffering as an inevitable component of deep passion and was resigned to putting her feelings at risk. She knew what she didn’t want, however, and that was exactly what Vicky valued above all else.”

Director Woody Allen attempts to tackle and observe the complications of romantic love. Can one make a film based on a phenomenon that can’t be defined? With a premise that focusses on a philia love between best friends Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), Allen creates stock characters that are the same in every aspect expect for their views on love. Vicky is structured, cautious, shrewd. Cristina is passionate, (believes she is) uninhabited and contemptuous of American culture.

Engaged to be married to her “decent” and stable fiance, Vicky’s views on love and passion are thrown to the wind when the stereotypically suave and troubled artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) approaches the two women, inviting them for a weekend of passionate love-making and spiritual growth in a beautiful town. Cristina jumps at the chance; Vicky, defensive and analytical, tags along to guard Cristina through the weekend.

Without giving too much of the plot away, this film is an interesting exploration into the perils of controlling aspects of one’s life that are not meant to be planned – the future, romantic trysts, even the course of a day – aspects that are entirely transient. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is essentially a film commenting on the nature of personal growth, ambition and goals.

We were both sure that our relation was perfect but there was something missing, you know? Like love requires such a perfect balance. It’s like the human body – it might be that you have all the vitamins and minerals but if there is some tiny ingredient missing –  like salt, for example – one dies.”

What is love? What is success? Why must we be a society that labels every relationship? (see my review of Lost in Translation) What is it to be in love, and what happens when we love something that was made to destroy us?

These very questions are half-answered with the inclusion of Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), Juan Antonio’s fiery and tempestuous ex-wife. Harbouring all the traits previously unseen in a woman by Cristina, Maria Elena helps Cristina realise her potential and teaches her to abandon her inhibited (American) ways. The most significant of these (of which I wholeheartedly agree with) is the categorisation of certain groups and individuals by imperialistic cultures. Cristina’s own American values surface when she becomes clingy and somewhat authoritative towards Juan Antonio, despite her belief of pursuing a tragic, poetic, free-thinking view of life. One such minor incident occurs when Juan Antonio suffers neck and shoulder pain – Cristina, not knowing what to do, reaches immediately in to her bag for pain killers. Maria Elena, instinctively and sensuously massages her ex-husbands body and feels the pain, as opposed to finding a cure for it.

Vicky’s fiance comments on Cristina:

I often warn you about her, she’s an unhappy person. She can’t part with that self-image she has of the oh, so special woman – the artist trying to find herself. I find her contempt for normal values pretentious, boring, cliché.”

A film that re-establishes the discourses of a (sexually and otherwise) liberated Europe, the American women ultimately find themselves at odds with the “European” way of doing things – casual, offhand, and deeply passionate. As the tourists they truly are, both Vicky and Cristina realise that the European way is not in their nature. At one point of the film, Juan Antonio very pregnantly questions Vicky on her definition of meaningless sex:

This city is romantic, the night is warm and balmy. We are alive. Isn’t that meaning enough?”

Pros

  • Penelope Cruz’s fiery and seductive performance as Maria Elena
  • Beautifully shot in the city of Barcelona
  • Switches with ease between English and Spanish
  • Every viewer will, at some point, be able to identify with one of the lead characters.

Cons

  • The film brackets, stereotypes different types of souls – the passionate, troubled, artsy woman or the bookish, cautious and inhibited personality
  • Some scenes with improvised dialogue are slightly awkward, and are obviously so.

Final Verdict

7/10

An important film about the danger of planning our lives, labels, categorisations, stereotypes and the materialistic culture of the West and “chronic dissatisfaction”, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an intelligent attempt at capturing the all-consuming and ultimately nourishing ways love has on our lives. The film is also a comment on embracing change, embracing our creativity, and challenging the analyser in all of us. For me, this’ll take a lifetime.

What do you think? Is it better to live freely, embracing everything the world has to offer us or, is it better to become a cog in a machine and settle safely for good enough?

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