Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008): “Life is short. Life is dull. Life is full of pain. And this is a chance for something special.”

vicky-cristina-barcelona-movie-poster-2008-1020412324Director Woody Allen’s love letter to the beautiful Catalonian capital, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) tells the tale of two American tourists enjoying a holiday in the city. They meet a charismatic Spanish artist (Javier Bardem) who approaches them with a scandalous request. Both Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) become enamoured with him, but things become complicated when his tempestuous ex-wife (Penelope Cruz) re-enters his life. What occurs next is a complex story about love and relationships, and the ways in which people approach the beginnings and endings of relationships.

I had a number of issues with this film, but I’ll get to the good bits first. This film boasts a strong cast – Javier Bardem is bewitching as the charming and passionate artist Juan Antonio, Rebecca Hall is fairly watchable as the uptight and responsible student Vicky, and Scarlett Johansson is gorgeous as the exploration- and discovery-oriented Cristina. But the most impressive cast member is Penelope Cruz as Juan Antonio’s ex-wife María Elena. I would argue that this film is at its most interesting when she is on screen, because not only is her character very complex and intriguing, but Cruz’s performance injects a level of conflict and energy into each scene that is otherwise missing. The script is peppered with Woody Allen’s typical witticisms and clever dialogue, and each actor communicates his typical style very well.

Visually, this film is pretty wonderful. It plays out like a love letter to Barcelona and the Spanish countryside, using warm tones to illustrate the warmth and charisma of the city and its surrounds. The cinematography by Javier Aguirresarobe seems to highlight the most beautiful aspects of Barcelona, and made me want to go back there post haste. If you’ve ever visited the city before, you’ll know that the city is like one big melting pot of interesting things to look at, between the sculptural art and architecture of the modernisme movement, the hustle and bustle of the city centre, and the old stones and twisted alleyways of the Gothic Quarter. The film seemed to give viewers exactly what they need in terms of showing the landscape in which the characters were interacting, such as in Gaudí’s fabulous Parc Güell, or at his as yet unfinished masterpiece la Basilica Sagrada Família, but yet the focus was still entirely on the characters. It never seems like there’s too much in the frame, yet you feel like you’ve seen enough to fall in love with the city and its lifestyle.

Vicky-Christina-Barcelona

My issues with Vicky Cristina Barcelona lie with its storytelling and characters. Normally I’m a huge fan of Woody Allen’s films where there are a bunch of main characters – I love his character-packed classics Interiors (1978)and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and his newer ensemble dramas such as Husbands and Wives (1992) and, of course, the simply amazing Blue Jasmine (2013). But unlike those films, not all of the characters in Vicky Cristina Barcelona have the ability to carry their scenes. Vicky’s scenes in particular seemed to make every scene stuffy and boring, even during her more passionate moments with Juan Antonio. When her fiancé (Chris Messina) is injected into the film, I really wanted to press the fast forward button because I had just had enough of them and wanted to get back to the interesting characters and the good parts of the story. It’s funny how the film is called Vicky Cristina Barcelona, because it’s about the two ladies and the development of their understanding of the concept of love and relationships within the city of Barcelona. Yet at the same time the film’s poster chooses to highlight the most interesting relationship of all – which doesn’t include Vicky.

My issue with the storytelling is that the film feels a lot longer than its 97 minutes, and that’s mostly due to the way the film is constructed. The method of telling the story lies in the combinations of different characters and their interactions with one another. But when the film focuses on a character with the winning personality combination of boring and pretentious, like Vicky, it’s difficult to sustain attention. It’s also difficult to sustain attention when there isn’t too much dramatic tension or stakes. Any of the characters could easily get out of the situation they’re in, and that makes the drama fairly pointless. However, as I mentioned, it is visually beautiful, so at least you get to distract yourself with some nice cinematography during these moments.

I didn’t really love Vicky Cristina Barcelona, even though the visuals almost convinced me into falling in love with it. I loved looking at this film, but there were signifiant issues with its characters and storytelling that put me off. I didn’t care about some of the characters, and that made watching this film a difficult experience at times. I’m not going to dare suggest that Woody Allen edit or change the vision of this story in any way, but I do believe that this is a film that people seem to either get along with, or don’t. I feel somewhat on the fence about it, even though I still think it’s a film worth seeing.

3/5
Watch the trailer here.

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29 comments

  1. Saw this a few months back and thought was an ok movie. Agree that it felt longer than it was.

    1. It’s funny how with some films the time just seems to pass really slowly!

  2. I watched this recently and I agree about the Vicky character (and her fiance) – really dreary and they just got in the way of everything else. I didn’t like Penelope Cruz’s character though…Woody Allen’s idea of a tortured, passionate artist…I think I just found her strops a bit irritating after a while!

    1. That’s exactly how I felt about Vicky and her fiance – they were just in the way! I loved Penelope Cruz’s character because of the crazy strops though. She’s a pretty fantastic actress. I think she got the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this!

  3. I agree with your assessment. Visually stunning, it sure helped, but the only character I liked was Bardem’s Juan. I remember thinking that Scarlett J. might be overrated as an actress, and Penelope needed a sock in her mouth, she was so grating. I don’t even remember the fiance, which shows how memorable he was and at the end I remember thinking it was an average movie, not horrible, but not exceptional. Great review 🙂

    1. Thanks Cindy! 🙂 It feels like with this film everyone has different reactions to each of the characters! I loved Penelope’s Maria Elena for her feistiness and hysteria. But crazy artist types are always intriguing to me!

  4. I quite enjoyed that one, something tells e that Penelope ruz had to tone it down for that role, she seems completely bat shit

    1. Haha! With some people you never know!

  5. Do you know I’ve never seen a Woody Allen movie?

    1. Really? You should see at least one!

  6. I was right down the middle with this one. Had some strengths (which you mention) but for some reason it didn’t click with me as a whole.

    Fine review!

    1. Thanks Keith! 🙂 I think if I wasn’t obsessed with the cinematography I would have given it a lower score for sure.

  7. I really, really like this film! It might be my favorite Woody Allen (keep in mind that I haven’t seen Blue Jasmine yet). I know that the Vicky character is super uptight and annoying, but I think that’s the point. She and Cristina allegedly learn about love, freedom, and relationships while they are in Barcelona, but that last scene in the airport is priceless. They were always fluffy tourists, and as frustrating as María Elena can be, she’s the only one who can satisfy Juan Antonio because she’s the only one with genuine emotions. Basically, I think that it’s a condemnation of two prominent, stereotypical American attitudes: the pseudo-liberal, and the uptight upper-middle-class soon-to-be housewife. (Maybe I just got more out of it because I’ve seen countless people behave like Vicky and Cristina?) Woody Allen is quite unforgiving!

    1. I like the way you think! Woody Allen knows what’s up with young lady travellers who expect something religious out of an exotic holiday away. I’ve definitely seen many people behave like them too! I think if you really like this, you’ll really love Blue Jasmine. Every now and then I stare vacantly into space just thinking about how awesome it was.

  8. Still am not so hot about this as others are, but I think that’s what just happens with Allen’s later-flicks. They work for some, and sometimes they don’t. Good review.

    1. Thanks Dan! Yeah, I’m a bit on the fence with his later films as well. They have the potential to be so awesome, or really not that great.

  9. Great review. I also found this a bit meh.

  10. Aw, I thought Vicky was quite interesting – very tragic, she was too down to earth and responsible to allow herself to be crazy and settled for the ordinary, safe choice.

    1. Yeah, I think characters like Vicky have the potential to be very interesting, especially when contrasted with their binary opposites! For some reason it didn’t work out for me in this one!

  11. SPOILERS!

    I actually really liked the Vicky character, perhaps because I related to her on some level. (Though I hope I’m not boring and pretentious.) Here’s someone that seems to have her life all figured out, headed in a certain direction, and she comes to Barcelona to have a life-changing experience … only to leave exactly the same person she was when she came. I found it refreshing to see a narrative where plenty happens, yet the takeaway is a reminder that we often go through big experiences without letting them change us. I don’t think VCB is a perfect movie, but I always find myself drawn back to rewatch it every year or so.

    P.S. – You consider Blue Jasmine an ensemble drama? I thought that was all the Cate Blanchett show with some nice performances complementing her.

    1. I really like your interpretation of this film! The next time I watch it (because I almost definitely will give it a re-watch at some point), I’ll definitely keep this in mind and see if I have a different opinion about it.

      As for Blue Jasmine, when reflecting on it I tend to always think about Sally Hawkins and Bobby Cannavale as well as Cate Blanchett. It’s one of those rare films for me where there’s clearly one person leading the charge, but I was so impressed with all of the actors and how they interacted as a group that I can’t consider it a single character piece. So even though technically it’s the Cate Blanchett show it’ll always be an ensemble drama from my somewhat less film educated perspective. 🙂

      1. I think that’s the beauty of Woody Allen’s films. When he’s at the top of his game, you feel like every character in that world deserves to be the protagonist of their own movie.

  12. You bring up an interesting point at the end there, some films are definitely pretty to look at while some are much more interesting to watch. The difference between “looking” at a film and “watching/experiencing” one is sometimes really subtle. I find it hard to tell sometimes in Woody Allen’s films. I’m not always won over by them.

    1. Totally agreed! His cinematography is usually fairly amazing or the direction is compelling in some way, which serves the purpose of distracting from a mediocre story. Takes a bit of effort to separate the two sometimes!

  13. I have to say I like this one… but not as much as his most recent Blue Jasmine and of course all the older films. I am catching up on your blog and loving all your movie choices, I’m like gosh, I love this one, love that one. Woo hoo nice, even Mac and Me. HAHAHAHA!

    1. Hahaha! Amazing! Your comments have made my day! 😀

      1. Awww and that is why we blog right?! To talk to people who love movies! 🙂

  14. […] cinematographer is Javier Aguirresarobe, who also worked on Blue Jasmine (2013), Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), Warm Bodies (2013), and two Twilight films – New Moon (2009) and Eclipse (2010). […]

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