Lost in the Movies: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

After spending much of today expanding on yesterday's unexpectedly complicated uber-Holy Grail post (which still needs some tweaking), I had a brief window - before the big debate - to go to the movies. Though I believe the proper and most deserving place to see a film is on the big screen, I've had little opportunity to demonstrate this on my blog. Indeed, during the two-month run of The Dancing Image, I've been to just three movies in the theaters - only two of them new releases (I also saw a retro screening of War and Peace). In both cases, I knew what I was going to see ahead of time, but tonight I was able to engage in that most enjoyable of activities, picking the movie on the spot with a minute or two to spare.

It was a toss-up between the Coen Brothers' Burn After Reading, which appears to be an amiable spy comedy rather than another ingenious Big Lebowski (though that comic masterpiece was brushed off in 1998), and Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona which continues the filmmaker's recent trend of leaving himself and his beloved city off the screen. Something told me I would enjoy Burn After Reading more, but somehow I was more compelled to see the Allen film at the moment. Partly because the Coen flick will be in theaters for weeks if not months to come, partly because I wanted something easier to digest (even a Coen comedy is a bit of a head trip), partly because Vicky stars the beautiful Scarlett Johansson and the beautiful Penelope Cruz, and they get to make out in a darkroom, er, I mean...

Well, OK, I admit it. I went to see the movie with the kiss. Actually, the make-out scene is rather tasteful and Cruz seems a good deal more comfortable with it than Johansson and it's over pretty quickly. So how does the rest of Vicky hold up (warning: spoilers ahead)? Well, it's a breeze, an enjoyable trifle which pleasantly surprised me with its relaxed effectiveness after a shaky start. The story opens as two young American women arrive in Barcelona - Vicky is soon to be married, and Cristina is a free spirit uncertain of her future. Like them, the movie initially seems to be a bit woozy from jet lag. The initial impression of Vicky is that it's sloppy; the seemingly improvised line readings are hit and miss and Allen dissolves in the middle of dialogue - always a tricky transition to pull off and here it just seems lazy. And a graceless if relatively harmless narrator rattles off the interior mechanisms of the two women in what would seem to be a textbook example of how not to use voiceover (though curiously, he isn't really obtrusive and eventually adds a nice, almost intangible feel to the tone).

But in the fresh Spanish air, serenaded by guitarists, the movie finds its footing. A certain sureness arrives with Javier Bardem, a painter who flatly propositions the two young women and whisks them away for a weekend. His first appearance is somewhat goofy, upholding Allen's recent tendency to give actors absurd lines over which they can stumble. There are no contractions and he has them pronounce and construct their sentences impeccably, and ridiculously; it seems more like they are making statements than speaking naturally. Juan Antonio - even the name seems cliched - is so forthright in his Latin lover maneuvers that it all seems a bit absurd. And it doesn't help matters that Rebecca Hall, as Vicky, has apparently been directed to affect Woody's mannerisms and speech patterns. It's not a becoming fit.

Yet Bardem brings conviction to the part and soon his confidence begins to be reflected in other aspects of the movie. Somehow the dialogue improves, the performances find a looser quality, and even those dissolves find a purpose. When Juan Antonio makes his move on the engaged Vicky, Allen dissolves between close-ups in an appropriate and sensual evocation of their wine-drunk passion (though when a kiss is filmed in slow-motion the effect is not so flattering: it looks like Bardem has morphed into Chigurh and is eating Hall's face). From here on, Vicky appears to be the art-house equivalent of a summer action film: it's entertaining, somewhat lightweight, and hits all the right notes for its audience (foreign locale, beautiful - and wealthy - people, artistic references, "authentic" music, sensual but tasteful sex). This is fine, and I was thoroughly entertained throughout (well, except when my left contact became detached and I had to watch through one eye, but that's another story).

However, the film becomes something more when Penelope Cruz jumps in as Bardem's volatile ex.
Until then, the movie has flirted with chance and recklessness and freedom, but Cruz embodies these qualities, not just as a written character but as a performer. As she lashes out in spitfire Spanish, it puts the tepid English exchanges to shame. Bardem too seems to come out of his shell and we see the frightened, weary side of Juan Antonio, previously portrayed as almost comically self-assured, and hence somewhat smug. This new side of the artist makes him more compelling and sympathetic. And Scarlett Johansson's Cristina, who is talked up as being such an uninhibited, wild soul in the early part is finally confronted with the artifice of her position when faced with the real deal: Maria Elena is wild and uninhibited in the extreme, and eventually her often violent passion elicits a truer, deeper, and more creative freedom on Cristina's part.

In other words, Maria Elena - and Cruz - brings out the best in everyone. She even, however inadvertently, dissuades Vicky from a potentially disastrous affair (one which doesn't represent who she is, but who she wishes she was). And Cruz, in her wildly disparate but equally convincing modes (hysteria, bitchiness, and a kind of motherly knowingness as she massages Juan Antonio's head and encourages Cristina's photography), smashes through Allen's guarded bourgeois conventions and introduces an element of real, and refreshing, spontaneity in the picture. The resultant menage a trois doesn't feel like one of Allen's not infrequent attempts at shocking in an amoral/immoral fashion, like the naughty Jewish schoolboy; instead it registers as a genuinely relaxed and open relationship, one of the least neurotic in Allen's work.

In this aspect, as well as in certain visual and thematic motifs (the bicycle rides along dirt paths, the sharing of the big house in the country, and of course Maria Elena's homicidal impulsiveness), Vicky Cristina Barcelona exhibits more than just a wink in Jules and Jim's direction. Yet unlike the French film, Vicky's vision of a three-way romance is not tragic, though it has its melancholy patches and ultimately dissolves, albeit without leaving any of its participants worse off than they were before. I'm not sure about the ending - since I never really thought Cristina was as impulsive and restless as they made her out to be, I don't think she would have broken up the trio so abruptly, and it calls into question the contrivance of the whole storyline.

But onscreen Americans abroad must always go home (or at least elsewhere) and so eventually Vicky and Cristina are seen on the airport escalator, lost in thought. No significant changes have been made in their life - Vicky is now married but to the same safe (though not entirely unsympathetic) man she was engaged to at the beginning, and Cristina has discovered a photographic talent but still doesn't know what she'll do with it and where she'll go next. Essentially, nothing has really happened to affect the course of their lives. But they had a memorable and engaging experience in Barcelona, and ultimately, so did we.


Joe Baker said...

Nice job with accumulating the list! Next step, see some of these damn films...

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks, Joseph - and just so you know, the Holy Grail list has been updated to link to the blogs which suggested each film. You should check that it too, at least while we wait for the "damn films" to come out on Netflix...

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