In 2007's Oscar-winning thriller No Country for Old Men, Javier Bardem stormed across Texas as one of the most fearsome villains in film history—a big, bad wolf who could huff, puff, and blow down any house in his path. Even though it's a relief to see Bardem escape that horrible haircut and slip into some stylish shirts in Woody Allen's new "erotic comedy," Vicky Cristina Barcelona, it's tough to shake the memory of that indelible, terrifying performance.
And there may be a good explanation for that. After all, despite Bardem's impressive good looks, he's still playing the wolf. This time, he's even more dangerous—as Juan Antonio, he's a well-dressed wolf who gets women huffing and puffing with desire, whether they're promiscuous or principled. He's a devil who inspires his victims to enjoy, and even volunteer for, their own destruction.
Even Woody Allen seems enamored of this Latin lothario. He paints the ruination of these women in such romantic colors that, if we aren't smart enough, we'll end up falling for the seduction ourselves. Vigilant viewers will notice the pleasure that Allen seems to find in illustrating gullible, self-destructive women. And as he exploits the warm glow of Barcelona's art galleries and streetscapes, the natural beauty of the film's four gorgeous actresses, and Juan Antonio's Don-Juan charm, he makes Vicky Cristina Barcelona a dangerously seductive picture.
Newcomer Rebecca Hall plays the beautiful and somewhat-sensible Vicky, who is engaged to an off-puttingly practical young man named Doug (Cris Mesina, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the young Steve Gutenberg). Vicky's a graduate student developing an M.A. thesis on Catalan culture, so she's happy to accept an invitation to Barcelona from her wealthy friend Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and her husband Doug (Kevin Dunn).
Vicky brings along her friend Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), a reckless beauty prone to plunging into promiscuous adventures. Johansson, who seems likely to catch up with Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow for frequent appearances in Allen's work, throws herself into this kamikaze role with shameless abandon.
Vicky and Cristina first encounter Juan Antonio in an art gallery, and Cristina is immediately smitten. Later, when Juan boldly proposes that both women accompany him on his private plane for a luxuriant weekend in Oviedo, indulging in art, food, and three-way sex, Vicky turns him down with the kind of rebuke he deserves. But Cristina taunts Vicky for her convictions and accepts the invitation.
And so the film's central (and simplistic) questions are announced: Which is better—to be like Vicky and strive for love in the context of marriage? Or to be like Cristina, throwing caution to the wind and following our lusts in search of adventure and excitement?
In this filmmaker's world, both characters are doomed. Allen seems to see women as pushovers, fickle, doomed to make mistakes and suffer severe dissatisfaction. But it's obvious, from the way he slows down and savors scenes of sexual abandon, which route he prefers to imagine.
In fact, in this film Allen gives his plot threads a few more kinky twists than usual.
As Vicky and Cristina become entangled with Juan Antonio, both are destined for confrontations with Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), the tempestuous ex-wife of Juan Antonio. When Maria Elena moves back into Juan's home for a season of recovery after a suicide attempt, you'll expect fireworks, and you'll be right. (She stabbed him once before, after all.) But the fireworks between Juan and Maria lead to even more alarming fires: Soon, Maria and Cristina are making out in the photographer's dark room, much to Juan's delight. And before long, the two Spanish artists are persuading Cristina that she "completes" them. She's the missing piece—"the secret ingredient"—that has kept them from finding satisfaction all along.
Woody Allen is famous for giving great actors juicy supporting roles that end up earning Oscar buzz, and this time the prize goes to Cruz, whose sparring matches with Bardem are feisty, flagrant, and funny. Maria Elena and Juan Antonio have a complicated relationship—one moment it's a passionate love affair, and the next it's a violent clash of the titans.
This attractive cast frolics against the romantic Barcelona backdrop, providing opportunities for eyefuls of Gaudi architecture and earfuls of exquisite Spanish guitar. Yes, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is one of the most aesthetically pleasing confections from Allen's oven.
But there's poison in the cake beneath such dazzling frosting. Marriages are made to seem boring and bland, while affairs are painted as vivid and delicious. Allen is at his most shamelessly manipulative in his portrayal of Vicky's fiancé Doug, who is annoyingly chatty about investments and real estate, with nothing resembling personality or passion. Comparing Doug to Juan Antonio is like comparing a slice of Wonder bread to a slice of fresh-baked rosemary-olive soaked in olive oil. Doug's character is the type of storyteller's cheat that Allen employs again and again—a dislikable figure whose sole purpose is to make us hope that a beautiful woman will be "saved" from marriage by a fling or an affair. Many will happily sympathize with Vicky as she reluctantly slips into the claws of the seducer. Like Madame Marie de Tourvel in Dangerous Liaisons, it's seemingly beyond her control to resist.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is being praised by some critics as an erotic delight; one described it as "a funny, bright, and witty meditation on love, in all its romantic and sexual exhilarations and heartache, in all its intriguingly elusive and inherently mysterious nature."
Erotic? Our dismay over the destructive and self-destructive behavior of these characters should overpower any enjoyment of their antics. "A bright meditation on love?" What love? Where is the care, the compassion, the selflessness that love requires? For all of their faux sophistication, these men and women are merely slaves to their hormones.
Let's give credit where credit is due: It's easy to appreciate the movie's wit, wordplay, cinematography, and performances. Rebecca Hall is quite a discovery; she may well become a remarkable leading lady in the future. And some viewers may find some needles of wisdom—as in just-say-no—in this haystack of hot-and-heavy hedonism.
But it's a shame to watch what's happening to Scarlett Johansson, who once stood out from a crowd of young actresses for her air of intelligence (Ghost World, Lost in Translation). More and more, in films like The Island, Match Point, and the upcoming Frank Miller comic book flick The Spirit, she seems happy to embody the fantasies of sophomoric, sex-obsessed males. Who will come to her rescue?
And it's an even greater shame to watch Woody Allen fall farther and farther from attaining any insights about faith or true love. In the best movies of his past—Sleeper, Hannah and Her Sisters, Zelig, Annie Hall, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Bullets Over Broadway are standouts—romantic idiots fumbled their way from folly into occasions of almost accidental insight. His seducer-devils and troublemakers have occasionally come away from their conquests and mistakes haunted by conscience (Crimes and Misdemeanors and Match Point). And once in a while, he's aspired to the kind of substance so often achieved by his hero, Ingmar Bergman, raising significant questions about faith, sin, and consequences.
But there are no moments of theological inquiry here, save for a moment when Antonio hails a beautiful crucifix as his "favorite" work of art—but that's more of a pickup line than a provocation for spiritual reflection. And his characters seem untroubled by conscience, bothered only by dissatisfaction.
As he broadens his geographical interests beyond Manhattan, Allen's understanding of love seems to be narrowing. His work should be taking him deeper into complex and revealing stories about the heart. Instead, he's becoming more and more preoccupied with the lurid and the lewd. In the end, like Cristina, he comes away knowing only what he doesn't want, never managing even a glimpse of what he, his characters, or his audience, really need.Discussion starters
- What do you think of this film's depiction of marriage? Can you imagine any of these characters finding fulfillment and satisfaction in a committed relationship? What would they need to learn in order to find true love?
- Do these characters' romantic affairs lead them to any kind of satisfaction? Does anyone make any wise decisions? Does the storyteller seem to be condoning unfaithfulness, or warning against it?
- What is the role of sex in these relationships? Does it have anything to do with love?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is rated PG-13 for mature thematic material involving sexuality, and smoking. It's an exhibition of promiscuity and selfishness that even adults should avoid. While its scenes of seduction and sexual misbehavior stop short of pornographic explicitness—it barely escapes an R-rating—the pleasure that Woody Allen takes in filming seduction undermines any worthwhile lessons his viewers might glean from the characters' mistakes.
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