He’d been hinting at it throughout his long, and sometimes meandering career as a filmmaker, but at last Woody Allen has laid his cards on the table: love, above all else, is life’s greatest impossibility. As always, he’s not averse to pursuing it, obsessing over it, and, if need be, even killing for it, but here we are, light years from “needing the eggs” (as he put it at the end of Annie Hall), and it remains humankind’s most irrational pursuit. Bereft of logic, sense, and any hint of reason, love is more than a silly indulgence to keep us from jumping off the nearest bridge; it is the sum total of our miseries, anxieties, and futile gestures. It also happens to be the most wonderful experience in all of life, outpacing even the race for wealth and power. There’s no argument that of all the subjects entertained by authors, painters, sculptors, directors, and musicians alike, love renders its nearest competitor an insignificant blip on the landscape. It will never be close.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Woody’s latest (and wonderfully familiar) examination of this eternal dilemma, manages to elicit laughs along the way, but only the sort that are meant to keep at bay the realization that men and women, men and men, women and women, or whoever dares embark on this most tragic journey, are not meant to be together in this way, even if our very survival depends on it. As such, it’s his most complete film in years, and certainly one of the most engaging. Again, Woody isn’t taking a stab in the dark here, or sprinting out onto limbs of dash and daring, but unlike, say, Match Point or Cassandra’s Dream, which wallow in man’s base nature and essential greed, his latest effort wags no fingers of the accusatory moralist. Instead, there’s a sadness afoot — a quiet, almost imperceptible resignation — that we are doomed to an almost unmitigated unhappiness, despite a near-warlike effort of attrition. The bed sheets, then, are where we seek a reprieve.
The story involves two friends on a two-month sojourn to Spain: Vicky (Rebecca Hall), an attractive, intelligent, and seemingly sane young woman, who has found love (her husband is stable, successful, and, needless to say, the epitome of drabness) and isn’t about to fly across the ocean to find it, and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), a self-described romantic who has all the passion and need of an artist, only without a sliver of the talent. She’s the eternal optimist in matters of love and lust, if only because she’s failed so often that hope simply has to be around the corner. So when the two women are seduced at a restaurant by the impulsive, relentlessly charming Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), their respective attitudes about sex are laid bare. Juan is brutally honest: he wants to fly both women to a small Spanish town, show them the sights, and ravage each in turn (preferably together).
It is the sort of offer no one is bound to accept, but Cristina is delighted. After all, the man exudes an almost impossible degree of confidence, and is he not a respected painter? What we may forgive in the artistic temperament, we surely do not in the decidedly average. Vicky is horrified by the slick, obnoxious appeal, but as the sun sets and the wind blows, we also know that she is hiding a buried longing for just such a seduction, which might give rise to the charge that Woody is suggesting a female’s subconscious desire to be raped. Ever the Freudian, that Woody. So off they march — Vicky under a feigned duress — and thus begins a weekend that will lead one woman to believe her need for predictability is a lie, while the other will find that the very opposite is fraught with as many, if not more, hazards and disappointments.
Several reviews have suggested that because Vicky’s husband-to-be is such a drip, Woody is advocating a “free love” that has its most lasting roots in our hippie past, or perhaps the bohemian soils of Europe. America’s crippling Puritanism, then, is to blame for the curse of monogamy and marriage. Undoubtedly, Woody continues to hold traditional relationships in utter contempt, but especially here, the untethered alternative holds about as much appeal as a house in the suburbs teeming with children. Sure, Vicky fucks Juan during that fateful weekend and never puts it behind her (thereby casting all kinds of doubt on her marriage), but Cristina’s “prize” — quite literally Juan’s body and soul — is little more than long stretches of lounging, interspersed with fawning, lovemaking, and reminders of inadequacy. Sounds good in the brochures, yes, but in reality, looking up at a talented lothario on his lofty perch rapidly wears thin, especially when every conversation relates to the artistic struggle. As portrayed by Bardem, Juan is an appealing sort (no one has to guess why he beds women at will), and even a pretty decent guy, but there’s really nowhere to go after a lost weekend. A brief affair or a wild orgy on the beach at sunset? Absolutely. But built into the very definition of paradise is the understanding that, above all, it is temporary, and any attempts at permanence will result in the same tedium as the so-called drudgery of “real life.”
Cristina moves in with Juan, of course, not out of any real love, but simply because she figures his rural retreat is the best way to hide from any sense of responsibility. Can’t one write poetry into the night and still live the dream? Some appear to think so, even if the delusion is right there at the surface, rather than typically buried. Cristina has always told herself that while she doesn’t know what she wants, she knows what she doesn’t want, which sounds oddly like the typical American character, where’s it’s less about staking a claim for an idea than living eternally in opposition. It’s what we do best, and something as ubiquitous as our political process would be impossible without it. In Cristina’s case, it’s her excuse for trying on as many hats as possible, all in some frantic pursuit for “meaning.” Needless to say, such a life is also suffocating in its narcissism, as it assumes others are (and should be) willing to march before her as possible characters in some kind of vain play.
The life she thinks she has chosen is, from all appearances, a good one, that is until Juan’s ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) shows up, at first in the form of a frantic phone call stating that she has just attempted suicide. Maria is asked to stay for a few months until she gets on her feet, which angers Cristina at first, as if she suddenly expected boundaries for a man who long ago sent them packing. In the days ahead, the three will exchange insults, shouts, come-hither glances, and eventually fluids, all with a curious lack of cheer. It seems impossible, but when Cristina and Maria make out in a dark room, it’s not so much a fantasy made flesh as the last gasp of a dying idea. We’d all like to think we’re so hearty and hip that we can live outside of the lines, but at the end of the day, we’re damn near united by our fanatical adherence to the rules. How else has religion survived man’s march through modernization?
As such, Maria is a can’t-miss warning for all those flirting with the wild side. Unhinged, unpredictable, and bordering on insane, she’s hot and sexy and insatiable, but where’s she going to be when I need to pay the electric bill? Woody’s far from using Maria as a reactionary symbol to save us from the lies of liberation, but there’s little doubt that she is the necessary other side of the coin; a reminder that sex can be hot, but no scientist has yet to harness the six-hour orgasm. So little of life is spent in the throes of passion, so why on earth do we cede so much of that remaining time to such fleeting nonsense? Because it isn’t nonsense, of course, and an orgasm beats a long commute any day of the week. It’s essential because it’s so brief. And when Cristina eventually recoils from the threesome, she isn’t turning her back on sex or its pursuit, simply the idea that she can live in the moment. Then again, she’s just as likely to go over the same ground in Paris, or London, or back home in New York. She’s not about to make any plans, and she’s prepared to live with the corresponding unease. And why not move on? A man like Juan needs more than attention: he needs to rotate the audience now and again lest he think he’s resting on his laurels. Show me a contented artist and I’ll show you idle hands. As with love, it’s the essential contradiction of creativity. As all great loves are tempestuous in our memory, the only worthwhile artistic endeavors spring from turbulent times, both personal and societal. If we were satisfied, we’d die from boredom.
In Manhattan, Woody admitted that people invented phobias and neuroses in order to forestall larger, more significant matters of life and death from entering our unprepared minds. Throughout Vicky Cristina Barcelona, I couldn’t help but think that we often do the same thing when faced with our personal, individualized sense of insignificance. I speak here of the stunning Spanish vistas and architecture, which, while crafted by man, surely dwarf his pitiful strut through life’s bizarre ritual. These monuments to ingenuity, craft, and beauty are humbling, yes, but impossible to truly appreciate in our mediocrity. How funny indeed that we engage in our silly little games amidst their awesome elegance, and how often we simply ignore them entirely, except when obligated to pay them mind while on vacation. Why must we distinguish between sightseeing and daily life? I have to believe it’s why Woody used such beautiful scenes for this story, for how else to communicate our trivial ramblings than by housing them in landscapes that will long outlast our last breath? Taking the film’s title into consideration, it’s not even a contest: we’ll take the latter every time, no matter what names you place in front of it.
Here, it’s described as “chronic dissatisfaction” (Woody’s primary cinematic theme), but it could just as easily be our arrogant assumption that somehow, we’re going to do it all differently. There isn’t a situation yet devised we won’t eventually tire of, though we need not be depressed by such a revelation. Vicky’s unhappy and restless, Cristina’s joyless and anxiety-ridden, Juan uses his paint brush to excuse a monstrous ego, and Maria’s capacity for love and violence runs through the same bloodstream. And then there’s Juan’s father, an aging, isolated man who, out of rage, got back at the world by denying it his poetry. In the end, he may be the movie’s true center. He remains “pure” by withdrawing from life, thereby avoiding the pain of rejection, while also denying himself the thrill of the arena. Even in victory, there are costs. And our choices leave us wanting. But make them we must.