Director 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.
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.
Watch the trailer here.
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