Vicki Christina Barcelona (& Gaudi)

September 13th, 2008 § 0 comments

If you believe, or at least accept the idea, that love doesn’t pan out the way you wish, or the way you think it should, then Woody Allen’s ideology toward life must make perfect sense. If instead, you believe in notions of fate and order in love, then his films, provoking maddening encounters that result in a chaotic muddle, must feel aggravating. Struggling somewhere in the middle of these extremes, I try to find a balance between my own experiences with love and life, and those ever appealing and tidy stories I wish existed in the world. According to Allen, he was asked to make a movie set in the lovely city of Barcelona, and after he received his “retainer” he found it quite an inspiring place. Most reviews suggest Vicki Christina Barcelona belongs in a category with his “middle ground” films; it is not one of the greats such as Match Point or older classics, but does not crash down like his self-centered comedies. The film is a disconcerting and somewhat unexpected exploration of self-expression, desire, and inexplicable connections, all forced into the context of a summer vacation in Barcelona.

I was surprised to realize that the film is not about three women in love with one man, nor about one man in love with three women, but about three women. Javier Bardem, with all his Spanish charm, is simply the figure around which the female characters are explored. I appreciate that Allen’s women are not relegated to the sidelines in importance, and he never explores relationships without recognizing, considering, or questioning what it is they contribute. Allen is a master when it comes to creating normal, almost cliché characters with sharp edges, and there is a multifaceted quality of universality in the women portrayed in the film. However unbelievable the storyline might become, these protagonists always remain grounded in a moral reality that feels vaguely familiar.

Scarlett Johansson’s youthful seeker is a character a certain sect of American women should identify with, she has high expectations for life that are ways outside her reach, and she has great hopes for something unique in love but without clue where to look. She is lost inside a shell of American dissatisfaction, and seeks answers in empty unconventionality. Her words echo so many women of my (and her) age, idealistic and naive, holding out for what they were promised as children while being brutally remolded by the realities of the world. Inside Barcelona’s tranquil buildings there lurks dysfunction, discontent, and unhappiness just like any other place. Her characters insincerity and false confidence is countered by moments of complete frankness, such as a scene where she blurts out that she has, no talent.

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On the other end of the spectrum is Vicki (Rebecca Hall), with whom we can also identify. She is a woman filled with preconceived notions about what makes life meaningful, a person happy, and a woman satisfied. She realizes somewhere during the summer how wrong she has been to apply her thick blanket of order, predictability, and reason over all of life’s inexplicable twists and turns. If I had to guess I would say she realizes this as, already engaged, she is making love to Bardem in the bushes. Unable to change what happened or how she feels toward this man, she spends the summer thinking, questioning, and suffering under the burden of a kind of love she never wanted. Even in a moment of passion and fulfillment, life is not necessarily as simple or easy as we would like. Without her defenses, her control and her rationality, she finds that the reality of her life, filled to the brim with wants, has been brought about by fear. She says she lacks her friend’s courage, but she also lacks the power to change the course of the life she has committed to.

Penelope Cruz’s neurotic genius suits her, and her marriage to Bardem is rather like a Diego and Frida combination explicitly reversed; she is the brilliant artist who overshadows her husband.

These women are, however, mediated, controlled, and interpreted by a male narration, a narration that feels divorced from the events unfolding on the screen. The narrative script, or the actor’s inflection, is sarcastic and mocking, and the performances are honest and even vulnerable. Male narration has long been the coded voice of authority, and here it unnecessarily fights with the strong performances of three interesting female actresses. The film’s ending was a great disappointment as well, as it brought all three women back into a Hollywood reality of female representation on the screen. In less then five minutes they lose their autonomy and integrity, all sense of character and interest. Cruz is reduced to a typical harmful neurotic, Johansson remains a sumptuous girl with loose sexual habits, and Hall convinces herself to endure ‘life as planned’. Bad endings are a sore blow for potentially good movies, even from a great screenwriter and director, and we were left with beautiful women being simply, beautiful women.

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