Life is short, life is dull, life is full of pain. This is a chance for something different.
— Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem)
Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz) doesn’t show up until nearly halfway through Vicky Cristina Barcelona. And when she does, Woody Allen’s sort of sweet, sort of disquieting, mostly superficial romantic comedy turns into something else. It’s not that it’s more or less concerned with sex, or threesomes, or artistic raging, but all these ideas are forcefully complicated and embodied. Maria Elena is at once frightening, seductive, and brilliant, not to mention flamboyant and patently exotic: her hair is untamed, her t-shirts paint-spattered, and her straddling of chairs singular. She’s also the figure least obviously dictated by the Allen template. And for that, you are eternally grateful.
That’s not to say Maria Elena doesn’t function within a typically Allenian roundelay of desire and resentment. The ex-wife of the painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), Maria Elena is several times discussed before she arrives on screen. At the first moment that Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) and Vicky (Rebecca Hall) espy Juan Antonio, he’s across the room at an art exhibit, looking dour and probably creative. When the girls, tourists in Barcelona for the summer, wonder about him, they’re treated to stories about his wildness and passion, and in particular, the possibility that he stabbed his ex-wife. Or perhaps she stabbed him. The Americans are struck by the Spaniard, of course, but don’t speak to him until later, when he approaches them at a restaurant. “I invite you both to Oviedo,” he announces, where they will drink wine and make love.
As Cristina catches her breath and her eyes go wide with anticipation, Vicky pulls back. “Maybe,” she says, “in another life.” Here you see what has been described repeatedly in the film’s first 20 minutes, by an omniscient, smug-sounding narrator (Christopher Evan Welch). Dark-haired Vicky and blond Cristina, best friends, are also opposites: the former, affianced to the exceedingly Upper East Sidey Doug (Chris Messina), is working on her master’s degree in “Catalan identity.” Cristina, full-lipped and sensuous, is unsure of her future. “I want something different,” she says, “something more, some kind of counterintuitive love.”
Though much of what goes on among Cristina and her friends is somewhat counterintuitive (like, if only one of them just talked openly with another, assorted subterfuges and tensions might be overcome in a rather adult fashion), none of it seems very different. Vicky Cristina Barcelona is yet another iteration of the Woody Allen Film, this time with splendid backdrops of Gaudi’s architecture and green hillsides. And Cristina, for all her efforts to be open, candid, and enthusiastic, is, as she puts it, “very moody.” That is, she’s much like other Allen characters, self-aware and nervous, desirable precisely because she’s complicated. Vicky describes her as “a mental adolescent: for a brief moment of passion, she abandoned all responsibilities.”
Ah yes, and what do you suppose Vicky yearns to do?
Predictable as the film may be, mainly concerning the growing competition between Vicky and Cristina, your sense of anticipation is not exactly whetted by the crisp-toned narration, which, when it’s not describing what you’ve just seen, is telling you what you’re about to see. If the device grants you emotional distance from the romantic proceedings, it is less clear how it comments on the intricate relations between art and artist. For this is the theme that comes roaring to the foreground when, after Cristina moves in with Juan Antonio (much to Vicky’s twitchy chagrin), Maria Elena moves in as well (“Like certain creative men,” the narrator explains, “Juan Antonio needed a woman to live with him”).
Fresh off a suicide attempt, she’s in need of looking after, which only Juan Antonio can provide. Initially Cristina is jealous of her roommates’ shared passions, for art and argument (“I feel like I’m a guest in my own house,” she complains.” “Yes,” answers Maria Elena, “You’re a guest”). She’s not a great artist, as she imagines Juan Antonio and Maria Elena to be (this even though he admits he’s stolen his best ideas from her), worrying, “I feel like I have a lot to express but I’m not gifted.” Maria Elena takes her romantic replacement under her wing, encouraging Cristina to take photos and serving as her most vibrant and inspirational model.
Cristina serves another function as well. As Juan Antonio says, he and Maria Elena “always felt our relationship was perfect but there was something missing.” With Cristina deemed the “missing ingredient,” the household flourishes and the montages mount: they laugh, they drink, they make love, they paint and develop photos (in a titillating dark room scene).
As sensational as this arrangement may seem, it gives way quickly to some abstracted notion of unhappiness (“Thoughts began to take precedence over feelings, says the narrator). Cristina’s art expresses nothing very clearly, and soon her status as “missing ingredient” begins to lapse, as Maria Elena and Juan Antonio begin to yell and throw things at one another. As the film descends into a slapsticky mayhem born of women’s inexplicable desires (especially, Maria Elena’s violence and, apparently, Cristina’s “thoughts”), it’s worth remembering a scene that initiates Vicky’s own tempestuous feelings, when Juan Antonio takes her to visit his father. A poet who “writes the most beautiful sentences in the English language,” but refuses to publish. Juan Antonio appears to chalk this up to his father’s declaration that he “hates the world,” and so means to punish it, but that seems too simple.
The poetry (which may or may not be beautiful, we’ll never know) stands in Vicky Cristina Barcelona as a test that goes both ways. While the son sees his father punishing the world, his father, who speaks very little, might well be the consummate artist, working for the sake of the creation, not for acclaim or money. Such a hermetic relationship between art and artist, however ideal, is also impossible. The same might be said of the relationship between lover and romance, presented here as art in perpetual revision.