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Movie Review: Vicki Christina Barcelona

For those of you, like myself, who have been a little disappointed by Woody Allen's last few films, I have one simple message: Go see Vicki Christina Barcelona. The film will undoubtedly cause you to renew your membership in the Woody Allen fan club.

The film is--like most Woody Allen movies--a tightly shot and carefully scripted exploration of the themes Allen has been exploring for the past 40 years; love, relationships, and how individuals make sense of the two while being true to themselves. The film may not cover any new ground, but Allen chose a cast over-flowing with sex-appeal and a location that drips with old-world charm and raw sensuality, making this film a joy to watch.

The film is less neurotic and more liberated than his past few works, and has none of those off-kilter, sinister quirks, as in the murders of Match Point and Scoop. This time, Allen also did not feel the need to write into the script a role for an old Jewish magician/criminal/detective so that he could make an appearance. He has thankfully freed this film from his own personal presence, which has a tendency to overbear and completely alter the color of a film, bringing it immediately back to Brooklyn, New York, regardless where it is shot.

No, Allen let's the cast and setting of VCB work by themselves, and that results in the his best offering in years.

Plot Outline

Vicki and Christina (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) are two young American women on vacation in Barcelona for the summer. Thanks to an irritatingly precise, staccato, even dorky-sounding narrator (think Moby crossed with Michael Moore), we are told that Vicki has is engaged to a sucessful young man and favors security in life and love, while Christina is a free-spirit, looking for real emotional experiences and unwilling to settle for anything less.

At a party, they meet a mysterious local painter named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who invites them, point blank, to join him for a weekend in Oviedo and to have sex with him. The girls go with him to Oviedo--Vicki reluctantly, Christina willingly--but the weekend doesn't turn out as planned. Vicki, the straight-laced one, ends up sleeping with Juan Antonio after Christina is incapacitated with food poisoning and has to stay in bed the whole weekend. Back in Barcelona, the engaged Vicki puts Juan Antonio out of her mind, as Christina and he begin an affair and move in together.

At this point, Juan Antonio's fiery and mentally unstable ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) enters the scene. The three get involved in love triangle that seems to smooth out any existing frictions between Juan Antonio and Maria Elena; they are able to get along, finally, with Christina in the mix to balance them out.

Ultimately, however, Christina's cerebral side gets the better of her and she backs out of the love triangle, upsetting the balance and casting Maria Elena back into psychosis. Meanwhile Vicki, who has been tortured by thoughts of Juan Antonio and a life more exciting, goes to the brink of giving in to him and breaking her engagement (now marriage) to her conventional partner.

The film wraps up as Vicki and Christina head back to the U.S. somewhat wiser, but basically right back where they started.

The Cast

The film is really "about" Vicki and Christina, but Bardem and Cruz, as the ex-husband and wife, steal the show. Both of them are alumni of Pedro Almodovar's films, the intensity they bring to the screen, and the chemistry between them, totally blows away everything else in this flim. Bardem's Juan Antonio is the ruggedly-handsome, earnest, and sometimes innocent artist; it seems like the role he was born for, his natural state. Cruz's Maria Elena is passionate, energetic, almost possessed, coping with the demons that make her what she is and that also destroy her. In the balance, she is absolutely incredible to watch on screen; outrageously beautiful and able to become whatever the role demands.

Johansson turns in a classy and surprisingly un-selfconscious performance, only once lapsing into the kind of Allen-esque neuroticism that has ruined a few of her past roles in his films. In the past, her looks have been much more impressive than her acting ability, but in this film she is not just a pretty face there to put asses into seats. She actually acts, and for once seems to take charge of her role as a liberated but self-possessed intellectual, instead of simply giggling despite herself and being Scarlett Johansson all the time.

The real surprise of this movie was Rebecca Hall, in the role of Vicki. Though lacking the name, resume, and even the classical beauty of Cruz and Johansson, Hall comes through with a sensual and visually captivating performance as the conflicted pragmatist; torn between living a predictable life and taking risks with her emotions. Maybe because she is an unknown actress she is able to consume the role of Vicki and totally make it her own. She accomplishes that rare feat of making us believe she is the character, and not just an actress; just as it is hard to look at Cruz or Johansson on screen and not see Cruz and Johansson.

The Setting

Most of the film's action takes place in the city of Barcelona and at Juan Antonio's house in the countryside. Just like the actors, the setting of this movie is gorgeous and offers something to hold the eye almost every minute. Barcelona has an exotic feel about it, and seems to be a city without the heavy metropolitan vibe and consequences of London or Paris. It seems slower, more mysterious, and the perfect setting for a trance-inducing love triangle. The city is the axis around which all of this romance swings, and is so foriegn and exotic that it imposes itself almost as another character (hence, perhaps, Vicki Christina Barcelona?)

Juan Antonio's house is also a feast for the eyes. It is everything you would expect from an artist's house in the Spanish countryside; open, bright, ornate, and splashed everywhere with creativity. Add a tanned, scarcely-clad Penelope Cruz madly splashing paint on a canvas, and becomes something out of a fantasy. It is like a haven of creativity and impulse, and within it's walls the threesome can flourish; outside, it's lifespan isn't quite as long. For example, it is only when Christina leaves the house that she questions the love affair and ultimately decides to leave it.

Suffice it to say, the setting of this film is a hugely important part of it, and seems to be what makes all of the film's romance possible. It is a joy to watch on screen, just as are the actors.

Main Theme(s)

Like all of Allen's films--the great ones anyway--this film is about love and relationships. More specifically, this film is about how different people approach love and relationships, and how they interpose their own beliefs and nueroses into love and relationships, often proving that relationships are untenable on a long-term basis.

The first real split in this movie is between Vicki and Christina; we see, very early, their two diametrically opposed views of love and romance. Vicki is pragmatic, conventional, wants to know what she is getting into, wants to know what to expect. Christina is the free-spirit whose attitude seems to spring more from intellectualism rather than innate sensuality; she has reasoned it out and has decided to be a free-spirit. Ultimately, each are brought to the limits of their tolerance for romantic adventure; Vicki when she finally denies herself the chance to get involved with Juan Antonio, and Christina when she pulls herself out of the otherwise functional threesome. We see that although they may profess different views about acceptable behavior and different personal limits, they are merely standing on different branches of the same tree.

On the other tree, however, stand Juan Antonio and Maria Elena; two people totally driven by their passions and their emotions, rather than reason; as long as something works, they do not question it, but go with it until it doesn't any more. Even when it doesn't work anymore, they cannot resist giving in to it.

In this fundamental split lies the difference--real or perceived to whatever extent--between American and European attitudes toward life and romance. It is the ultimate battle between the Head vs. the Heart, the Constrained vs. the Liberated, the Rational vs. the Sensual, Thoughts vs. Feelings, etc. etc. When Vicki and Christina head back West, over the Atlantic, it seems as though their respective expiriments with unbridled sensuality are over.

However, there is no final value judgment on either of these two lifestyles. The passionate and possessed Maria Elena seems no better off, maybe worse off in fact, than her two American counterparts. Juan Antonio seems destined to drift from affair to affair, unable to be with the woman he truly loves because their relationship "just doesn't work;" it has the passion, but there is just "one thing" missing that makes it unable to function. Ironically, it is Christina, the intellectual, that allows it to function but will not allow it to continue.

While Vicki and Christina are headed back to the U.S. and their old lives, Juan Antonio and Maria Elena seem just as likely to resume their old ways; each of them alone and searching, stuck on the same Spin-Cycle and longing for a life or a person that is just beyond their reach.

In the end we can detect just the barest thread--not always thinly disguised in Allen's films--that it is all just a meaningless gambit meant to fill our hours here on earth while we are waiting for the inevitable, and that there really is no changing people, and no changing ourselves. Basically, we're stuck with ourselves, and we're all just looking for satisfaction wherever and however we can find why not spend two hours staring at beautiful people in a beautiful landscape, doing things and getting into adventures we'll probably never do in our own lives? Indeed. Why not...

Go see this movie. You'll get your money's worth.


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