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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Barcelona love pentagon

New Woody Allen film explores complexities of love

Published: August 29, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.

When I first heard the title of the Woody Allen-written and directed film, I’ll admit I was a little confused. After all, the title Vicky Cristina Barcelona does away with all verbs and conjunctions, leaving you with little idea of the film’s premise. Is Vicky Christina the protagonist or the name of some ex-pat bar in Barcelona?

However, after watching the movie, I can only be glad that Woody Allen was not more descriptive with the title. To give a full picture of the love pentagon that ensues, he’d have to name it “Vicky Cristina Juan Antonio Marie Elena Mark Barcelona”– a mouthful no doubt.

Nevertheless, this title does aptly stir up the confusion of defining love that Allen seeks to convey. To show that love is never black and white, no matter how rational a person, Allen starts with two female protagonists and shows how their tangled web of romantic links spirals beyond their control.

The movie begins with Vicky and Cristina, best friends, touching down at the airport in Barcelona, there to stay the summer with Cristina’s relatives. From the beginning their differences are apparent. Vicky, a graduate student of Catalan identity, comes to Barcelona to advance her education, while Cristina, recovering from a recent break-up, comes with the vague pursuit of finding something “different”.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona plays out somewhat like a tourism video for Barcelona, until the two spot the tortured painter Juan Antonio across the room at an art gallery and then later at a restaurant. Juan Antonio approaches them and proposes a trip to Oviedo for a weekend of sightseeing and sex in such a frank manner that it’s hard for anything to get lost in translation.

However, his forthright manner may be what draws both Vicky and Cristina to him in the first place. Engaged to a Wall Street Millennium version of the Gray Flannel Suit, Juan Antonio offers Vicky the spontaneity that her fiancé, Doug, cannot. As Juan Antonio puts it, “Life is short and full of pain, and this is a chance for something special.”

While Doug can offer Vicky a McMansion in Westchester complete with a tennis court, there’s hardly anything smolderingly passionate about the future that lies ahead for them together. To further emphasize their mundaneness as a couple, Doug constantly talks about another couple, Ken and Alice, who Doug adores and seeks to imitate.

Cristina’s background as an actress, who recently wrote and directed a 12-minute film about love, leads the viewer to imagine Cristina bouncing around trying to find authentic free-thinkers, while only meeting posing hipsters easily defined by the day’s trends. Juan Antonio turns out to be the authentic tortured artist Cristina is seeking, and of the two women, Cristina is the better suited for him. However, Vicky can’t help but harbor an attraction towards him, which forces her to question the stable relationship she left behind in the U.S. Not content with a simple ménage à trois, Woody Allen introduces Maria Elena, Juan Antonio’s notorious ex-wife, to further explore his multifaceted view of love and relationships. Juan Antonio and Maria Elena lack a balancing force in their relationship despite strong passion for one another.

Conversely, the relationship between Juan Antonio and Cristina represents a love in which something is too overbearing, in this case the reappearance of an ex-wife. However, by the end of the film, Allen does not seem any closer to defining love than he was at the beginning. Rather the movie’s conclusion reminds me of a characteristic Woody Allen shoulder shrug, in which he seems to concede that love defies definition and is more hit-or-miss than people might like to believe.

Though the plot leaves the viewer with too many questions at the end, the ensemble cast drives the film. Vicky Cristina Barcelona was a great eye-opener for anyone who is not familiar with the foreign work of Penelope Cruz, who plays Maria Elena, or Javier Bardem, who plays Juan Antonio, and rose to fame in the U.S. with last year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, No Country for Old Men. Rebecca Hall–who some may recognize from The Prestige–highlighted the uptight Vicky’s endearing qualities.

However, Scarlett Johansson’s performance was less than memorable. In Woody Allen’s 2005 film, Match Point, Johansson played a nubile American actress whose unbridled sexuality acts as a connecting thread to Cristina. Although Nola was a bit less stable than Cristina, the characters’ smilarities prove that even one world’s most renowned directors can slide into typecasting. Allen envisions Johansson’s characters as naive, sensual Americans abroad whether they travel to England or Spain. Perhaps it’s time for her to head back to the States and see what roles other directors can offer her.