Woody Does Barcelona
It’s become little more than a cliche to say that nobody shoots New York the way Woody Allen does. Like Spike Lee’s Brooklyn or Almodóvar’s Spain, Allen’s New York isn’t just a backdrop but a organism; it’s a place that demands narcissism as a survival skill and in turn rewards characters with the joys of unfettered self-indulgence. In Manhattan and in Annie Hall, Allen films the city with such earnest adoration that viewers find themselves willing to indulge Allen’s self-styled protagonists on their ambles through Central Park, because hey, Alvy Singer certainly couldn’t live in Paris.
But over the past ten years, as everyone also knows, Allen’s films have migrated, first to London and now to Barcelona, and while Woody’s clearly taken with these cities, he just doesn’t get them the way he does his hometown. In Match Point, Allen’s London fell somewhere between a Dickens novel and an Oxford reunion, and now, in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Allen romanticizes Barcelona with the same kind of two-dimensional naiveté typical of tourists wandering around Las Ramblas. Every other shot is of a Gaudí building — which Allen pores over with the fawning reverence of a teenager — and his vision of Barcelona is one of bourgeois expatriates; of wealthy bohemians and bankers who live in the hills encircling the city and descend only when a quaint restaurant or art opening demand that they do so.
Allen’s latest film, the unfortunately titled Vicky Cristina Barcelona is the story of two girls in their mid-20s who decide to spend a summer in Barcelona and soon become entangled in the obligatory romances that accompany both Spain and Woody Allen movies. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is there to pursue her master’s in Catalan culture (although mysteriously, she speaks neither Spanish nor Catalan) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) is there to heal from the trauma of spending a year working on a 12 minute film she ultimately decided she disliked. Soon after arriving in Barcelona, the women meet Juan Antonio, a Spanish painter with a reputation as a Lothario, who invites then to spend a weekend in the town of Oviedo (“Oviedo? I’ve never even heard of Oviedo,” the Catalan MA student complains) and soon enough, the three are hard at work testing out different romantic configurations.
Like many of Allen’s films, Vicky Cristina is an extended riff on the tension between reason and passion, neatly and very literally compartmentalized into the characters of Vicky (mind) and Cristina (body). While Vicky initially rebuffs Juan Antonio’s advances out of a loyalty to her fiancée (a New York lawyer whose preferred topics of conversations are Westchester neighborhoods and Japanese plasma TVs) she soon finds herself attracted to the artist’s matter-of-fact approach to pleasure, and they eventually end up betraying both fiancées and public decency laws on a lawn after a Spanish guitar concert. Cristina, on the other hand, wholeheartedly embraces Juan Antonio’s bohemian lifestyle, and ultimately ends up in a three-way relationship with him and Penelope Cruz in his cavernous home outside Barcelona. While some reviewers have critiqued the film for its flat and essentializing portrayal of women (Slant‘s Ed Gonzalez redubbed it Pan-Seared Misogyny in Hot-Blooded Balsamic Mediterranean Reduction) Allen’s women are more complicated and tormented than any of the men in the movie, veering back and forth between stability and passion with an indecisiveness typical of most people in their 20s. It’s through this hesitation, and through the breakdown of these categories that the film hits its stride. Rather than insipidly adhering to received notions of monogamy and romance, Allen toys with the Platonic ideal of love, and if only on a superficial level, ultimately suggests that love can’t always be found in the places we expect it to be.
If the description above suggests that I disliked the film, I didn’t. I actually thought it was quite good, albeit a little infantile and heavy-handed at times. If Allen’s greatest films come from the careful pairing of characters and place, then Barcelona felt more like a crutch than a supplement, and in some ways, detracted from the overall quality of the film by lending it an air of “gaudy travel porn.” (Again, Ed Gonzalez). Weirdly enough, the film was structurally akin to Everyone Says I Love You — both films are divided into little sections that culminate in wry one-liners, and both employ the same vaguely ironic voiceover — while thematically aligned with Match Point, sharing its gravitas and sense of philosophical depth. While Vicky Cristina is not one of Allen’s best, it is one of his recent best, and for all of the overcompensation and details that don’t quite work out, it certainly leaves you with food for thought, if not, as everybody loves to point out, an appetite for its protagonists.