Woody Allen’s latest feature, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” which was just released on DVD, is, in my opinion, his best film in years. Now you might think that isn’t saying much since most of the films he’s made in the last decade-and-a-half have been rather mediocre; however he’s really hit something meaningful this time. Instead of being about unlikely humorous situations, “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” has something a bit profound to say about romantic relationships.
One thing that makes this movie stand out from the pack of Allen’s more recent films is four main characters that are well developed. Each has strong desires and each strives to do what they think is best for themselves and for each other; yet their different attitudes toward love and relationships make it seem nearly impossible that everything will work out for everyone in the long run.
When the film opens, we meet two young American women, Vicky and Cristina (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson) who come to Barcelona, Spain for the summer. Vicky is completing her graduate thesis in Catalan culture and her friend Cristina is tagging along because she has nothing better to do.
Vicky is very happy being engaged to her boyfriend Doug (Chris Messina) who is back in New York. Doug is not exactly Mr. Excitement, but he’s attractive, stable, level-headed, and wealthy, everything that Vicky has always wanted. Since great passion can lead to great pain, Vicky’s quite satisfied with mild love and an easy-going relationship. She eagerly looks forward to settling down with Doug at the end of the summer when she returns to New York and living a comfortable, respectable life in the suburbs. At least, so she thinks.
Cristina, on the other hand, is a bit more of a free spirit. Having just spent two years making a 12-minute short, she’s decided she’s no longer interested in filmmaking; maybe now she’ll try still-photography, or whatever else she might fall into. Her carefree attitude toward career spills over into her love-life. Far more open and adventurous than her friend Vicky, Cristina is more impulsive and more willing to embrace something out of the ordinary. At least, so she thinks.
Soon, the two friends meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a large-living, impetuous artist full of vigor and lust for life. Expressing himself loudly, both on canvass and in relationships, he lives for the moment. He’s not ashamed of the scandal he caused in the art-world several years before when his messy marriage ended violently with his ex-wife attempting to kill him. To Juan Antonio, it’s all part of life, every bit of which is worth embracing. At least, so he thinks.
Juan Antonio is immediately attracted to both Vicky and Cristina and does not hesitate to make his feelings known—quite bluntly. His style, naturally, attracts Cristina but turns off Vicky; before they know it, the three are flying off to Asturias (on the opposite side of Spain) to see a famous sculpture. After several days in Asturias, lots of wine, some Spanish guitar, and a spontaneous and surprising sexual encounter, the three return to Barcelona where Cristina moves in with Juan Antonio and Vicky’s fiancé comes to visit, giving Vicky second thoughts about her impending marriage.
Enter the fourth and perhaps most interesting character in our drama, Juan Antonio’s ex, Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz in an Oscar-winning performance). Having just attempted suicide, Maria Elena is the most passionate character and also the most crazy. She loves and hates Juan Antonio. She is fiercely jealous—a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown (if I can steal a phrase from Almodóvar)—but she also has her good days. She is an extremely gifted artist, even more so than Juan Antonio, and never lets anyone forget it. She schemes to get Juan Antonio to return to her bed even as she genuinely befriends Cristina and guides her artistic endeavors.
These four absolutely fascinating characters have such interesting interplay. I don’t want to say too much out of fear of ruining the revelation of how the various relationships develop, yet I think it’s fair to say that Allen has hit on something rather poignant about both conventional and open-minded relationships. He shows us how love can turn to hatred which can turn to love and then back again to hatred. And he shows us how a single missing ingredient can ruin an otherwise perfect romance.
It also doesn’t hurt that this movie is filmed just beautifully. Bathed in warm, Mediterranean sunlight with gorgeous sites of Barcelona and Asturias in the background, the romantic Spanish culture pervades the picture, lending extra depth to this story of four people and their fascinating relationships.
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” can make you think about the special relationships in your own life, past lovers and present ones. How far should you have gone then and how far should you go now to make the relationship work? Who’s the best person to spend the rest of your life with and who are you better off never seeing again?
Vicky, Cristina, Juan Antonio, and Maria Elena are all trying to figure these things out. I guess all of us are.