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March 20, 2012 / Siobhan Argent

Vicky Cristina Barcelona – jiggle-tastic Spanish sexiness

OK, so I’m a little behind the 8-ball on this one, as this film has been out for years but I’ve never seen it until now. Red-blooded men everywhere (especially those invisible ones that follow my blog), are wondering why the heck I haven’t covered a film that features Spanish-speaking Hollywood darling Penelope Cruz, nor the jiggle-tastic Scarlett Johansson. While I am no Woody Allen expert, he is certainly a directorial/writing drawcard, and his influence shows in the film; Vicky Cristina Barcelona seems to embody all of that quirky, almost obsessive-compulsive narration that makes a Woody Allen film so gosh darn…Woody.

It has, for example, that unmistakable sense of realism that Allen likes to emphasise, that pushing of the fourth wall. Couple this with the comforting upper-class American accent of narrator Christopher Evan Welch, who seems to tell us more than even the two main female characters seem to know, and in some ways the audience is more clued in than the characters, even when we’re so enveloped in their lives that they almost seem to bump into the camera lens. Part of the genius in Allen’s narration approach is that exposition through character dialogue becomes unnecessary, even detrimental to the film; a narrator immediately trims all the fat you see in other films, where scriptwriters can only seem to use long (and often theatrically ambivalent) character monologues to get important information across. It allows the two actresses to more or less play out their thoughts with the simplicity and emotional resonance of a look or movement.

While Vicky and Cristina are titularly acknowledged, the final word in the movie’s title is, interestingly, the link which irrevocably binds the two women’s experiences together. Here is where I would make analogies to Captain Planet and that suckered Indian Planeteer with the ‘Heart’ ring (whatever the heck that’s good for), ‘by your powers combined…’ etc., but I’m too mature for that.

Anyway, back to the story. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is a neurotic young woman studying Catalan history. She’s brought friend Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) along to see Barcelona with her and do things like look at weird sculptures for hours at a time while wearing a really contemplative and serious ‘I’m studying art’ face. This is all kind of interesting to Cristina, but she’d rather be having sex with handsome men, and I’m sure they’d rather be having sex with her.

How fortunate, then, that Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) sees the two women in a restaurant one night during their stay, and comes over to offer both Cristina and Vicky precisely such an opportunity. While Cristina’s eyes tell us all that she would be quite prepared to knock over their half-finished meal for a bit of Javier paella, Vicky is uptight, emotional and, well, unfortunately, she’s totally the one I would be were I forced to choose a character most similar to my own. She knows that Juan Antonio is dangerous (albeit sexy) goods. Unlike me, however, Vicky is unromantic and engaged to the pleasant (not to mention stultifying wealthy) Doug (Chris Messina), who is apparently one of the only men on earth incapable of understanding the appeal of a threesome. Cristina sees nothing to lose in encouraging a flirtation; Vicky is certain her entire carefully planned life would be compromised.

Juan Antonio is the primary male figure of the movie and, unsurprisingly, the only one who seems blissfully removed from all this obsessive sexual analysis. He has sex because he feels like it, only his artistic temperament prevents him from coming off as a creep. As long as he mentions that he’s an artist, or he acts like an artist, the women he is with suddenly see a sexual relationship with him as a very avant garde thing to be doing. Vicky has already been unexpectedly slayed by Juan Antonio’s advances when Cristina falls under his spell, more openly and, most confusingly, at the same time as Juan Antonio’s crazy but inspired ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) crash lands in his kitchen.

Cruz is alarmingly good at playing an artist driven almost completely nuts by her own genius. She is ferociously jealous of Cristina’s relationship with her husband, and as she veers from Spanish into English into Spanglish while engaged in bitter conversation with Juan Antonio, it’s clear she’s a damaged woman who struggles to agree with gravity. She is the crazy sonofabitch who, in flying completely off the walls, manages to ground and centre the entire film around the whirlwind of violent emotional narcissism.

Patricia Clarkson also makes an appearance in an excellently cast role as Judy, a married friend staying in Barcelona and a person that Vicky appears to admire as a role model for her future life as a rich wife. And while Judy certainly does enjoy the advantages of her life, they are not necessarily the kind of privileges Vicky had imagined. Allen regularly shifts the paradigms of each character’s understanding of the world throughout this film. For Vicky, this means she is effectively never sure where she stands, constantly tense or worried. Cristina, on the other hand, seems happy on shifting sands. She likes having her own standards challenged, and I find that resonated with me more than anything. If Woody Allen were trying to say anything in this film (apart from ‘Look at how hot these women are! Look! Jiggle!’), it might be that social norms don’t make much sense when you go somewhere that makes your social expectations irrelevant. In other words, go with the flow and you might experience some interesting (and challenging) things.

And before you point it out, I know I have blatantly sexualised Johansson’s every action in this movie. At its most explicit, this film is about the ties people make through sex and sexual attraction. Ergo, Johansson is the perfect casting choice; her character seems to fornicate, or think about fornicating, or be aware that other people are fornicating almost constantly throughout her time in Barcelona. Essentially, to equate Cristina with anything other than the most carnal of all acts would be doing her a disservice, because Johansson handles the topic and the challenges it presents laughably well. She is a natural in front of the camera, playing an unashamedly naïve and practised character all in one fell swoop.

In light of this, it’s perhaps not surprising that this film fails the Bechdel Test. But as Joe from  ‘(I’m) Not a Fanboy’ points out:

I realized that while the movie does indeed fail the Bechdel Test, it also fails the Reverse Bechdel. The only time two men have a conversation alone, it lasts all of two seconds and is about how one of them has sex dreams of the other’s ex-wife. Don’t worry, they’re father and son. And Spanish. One of them is Javier Bardem and the ex-wife is Penelope Cruz. Really, it makes sense in context.

When the apex of this film does actually arrive, it’s believable, but it does still reek of a type of Allen-esque dirty old man conflict resolution. We can probably see it coming, and yes, in context it’s entirely plausible and even character-affirming. But it’s still a Woody Allen film, and he still married his stepdaughter, and I shouldn’t think of these things when I see a movie this well-rendered, but GAH! I can’t help it.

Aside from this inescapable truth, what strikes me most about Woody Allen’s films in general is, perhaps, the fact that they really do seem like they could happen to anyone. That, were I to be thrown into the same situation as neurotic Vicky, I really would suffer a kind of matrimonial amnesia and collapse into the arms of a handsome Spanish artist after a sensual evening listening to acoustic guitar.

So, in summary, if you’re a Woody Allen fan, then yes, see this film. If you appreciate jiggle, then it’s pretty much mandatory. If you don’t like being repeatedly told that women are sexy all of the time and never once wear old ugly T-shirts or eat chocolate or get fat, then no. In that sense, it’s probably much more a film suited to a straight male audience. But for some infuriating reason, I still like Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Perhaps because the premise is interesting, the characters mostly relatable and realistic, and the idea of being seduced by an artistic Spanish man is undeniably attractive. More than anything, this film will seduce you – but just remember that it won’t love you back once this affair is over.



Leave a Comment
  1. Joe Criger / Mar 20 2012 2:23 PM

    It’s an honour to be quoted in your review and I thank you very much for doing so.

    Of course, I always thought the thesis of this movie was “true love is unrequited”. Which was a rather depressing moral for a sex comedy. 😛

    • Siobhan Argent / Mar 21 2012 9:53 PM

      Thanks Joe! All the work goes to you for having quotable text. Funnily enough, I never really thought about love, but I did think a lot about meaningful human connection – Vicky and Cristina both had meaningful (and ultimately negative) experiences, but I doubt either of them would, in the long run, throw that experience away. Alas I’m no closer to having the funds to head to Barcelona.

      • Joe Criger / Mar 25 2012 6:09 AM

        God, ain’t that the truth.

        True lesson of the film: Barcelona and Oviedo look incredible. You cannot afford them.

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