Review: Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Few would believe that the hyper Woody Allen has it in him to make a film like Vicky Cristina Barcelona. His films so far have been witty, fast-paced and likeable, especially when he isn’t in them because he can play but one character – himself. Vicky Cristina Barcelona however, looks like it’s made by a wholly different person. One whose soul agenda is not to convey his great wit and intelligence to his audience.
The story is about two women, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) who travel to Barcelona for a vacation. There they meet the sexually aggressive Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). Cristina in her forced post-Modern outlook is immediately attracted to his predatory skills, while the overly balanced Vicky is more than cynical about him and ‘method’. His suave, European demeanour wins them over and they accompany him to his birthplace, also in Spain. This leads to a number of friendships, relationships, loves and betrayals, and that’s what the film is about.
We hear a constant narratorial voice that actually tells us the story, sometimes giving us information in advance leading to heightened anticipation, and sometimes withholding just the right amount - for shock value. The beauty of this story lies in its simplicity, or rather apparent simplicity as is enforced by the narrator, who is, like all good narrators, matter-of-fact about the story he tells. That we hear the most wonderfully bizarre story in the most traditional way of story-telling is interesting. The voice of the narrator is perhaps the single strongest force that ensures the smooth flow of the story. There is an ease with which the story is told that makes even a threesome seem like a spiritual, uplifting idea.
The characters are well built and contribute to the strange ride this film is. My personal favourite is Cristina, who is a painful mix of progressive and a forced progressive. Her studied attempts at being impulsive are hilarious, yet, when the straightjacketed Doug (Vicky’s fiancé) criticizes her lack of respect for ‘normal values’ as pretentious, the joke is on him. Similarly, Vicky, who starts out as the most stable, reasoning character of the film, turns into an emotional mess after one escapade with Juan Antonio. A good combination of the two is Juan Antonio himself, who embodies both these opposing forces.
A late entrant, Mary Elena (Penelope Cruz) brings in madness and a raw sexual energy that changes the tone of the film. The constantly touch-and-go relationships that she enters into are Woody Allen’s unique touch and her actual impulsiveness makes her the most attractive character.
The actors have helped Allen a great deal in realizing this little film. Unfortunately, Scarlett Johansson is not drastically different in this Woody Allen film than any other though she fits the role well. Javier Bardem plays out a great balancing act between the stable and not-so-stable aspects of Juan Antonio’s character. It is however, Penelope Cruz who steals the show.
No one who sinks into the film (as most viewers will) can miss the lovely background score that suits the film well and compliments the story being told.
You can call the film meta-normative, you can say the relationships occupy an alternative space, you can pitch the romance of Spain against the lack thereof of America and see the subtleties of moralities in it, but for me, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is just telling a story. It’s a great story and it is told well. And that is enough.