Summer Movies: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

by Latoya Peterson

Have you ever watched a movie, and then wished you could have seen it from another character’s perspective?

That was the feeling I got while watching Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the most recent Woody Allen film that is actually quite enjoyable – as long as you don’t mind having two dimensional female characters and you are fine with the whole foreign locale/exotic-natives as a backdrop for the growth of the white protagonist kind of thing.

So yeah, you have to swallow a lot to enjoy the film.

Then again, I watch films like Transformers. Obviously, I don’t have problems suspending disbelief.

I sat in the theater and allowed the story to wash over me. In broad strokes, the third party omniscient narrator explains the thoughts and travels of two friends – Vicky and Christina.

(Warning: After this point, there are spoilers.)

Wikipedia already has the plot synopsis, so I will crib from them:

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlet Johansson) visit Barcelona for their summer, staying with Vicky’s distant relative Judy (Patricia Clarkson) and her husband, Mark Nash (Kevin Dunn). A Narrator (voice of Christopher Evan Welch, present throughout the film, describes the two friends: Vicky is practical and traditional in her approach to love and commitment, and is engaged to the reliable but unromantic Doug (Chris Messina). She is in Barcelona getting her masters in Catalan Identity, a project spawned by her love of the works of Gaudí, and is emotionally moved by Spanish guitar. Cristina, on the other hand, is spontaneous and unsure of what she wants in life. She is just out of a relationship and wants to get over the bad time she had making a 12-minute film about Love.

At an art exhibition, they notice the artist Juan Antonio(Javier Bardem). Cristina is impressed with him at first sight, and grows intrigued when Judy and Mark tell the girls that the artist has suffered a violent relationship with his ex-wife, María Elena (Penélope Cruz). Later that night, the pair notice him across the room in a resturant. He and Christina exchange glances, and he approaches their table, asks Christina’s eye color, and abruptly invites them to accompany him to the town of Oviedo, where they will sight-see, drink wine and, hopefully, make love. Christina accepts at once, but Vicky is skeptical and refuses. She is eventually convinced, and the pair accompany Juan Antonio to Oviedo on a small private plane during a storm.

This all happens in the first twenty minutes.

As per type, the brunette Vicky is the calm, sensible one who has a fully formed life plan and Cristina is standing in for the flighty blond. The two do accompany Juan Antonio to Oviedo, where the girls are experience a role reversal – the normally uninhibited Christina falls ill and is unable to enjoy Juan Antonio’s seduction, while the curt and occasionally abrasive Vicky finds herself giving into the moment and sleeping with Juan Antonio. After the three return to Barcelona, Juan Antonio takes up with Cristina, leaving Vicky to ponder the unraveling of all her carefully laid plans.

The movie progresses in this way, told by the narrator and providing small glimpses into the lives of the characters. The film receives a much needed shot of spark much needed shot of spark once María Elena arrives on the scene.

Now, initially, I was concerned about the role of María Elena. I am not too familiar with Woody Allen’s work, but it would appear that he doesn’t really work with (or write about) women of color. And the idea of a tempestuous Spanish sexpot was veering dangerously close to stereotype territory. Yet, Penelope Cruz manages to take a somewhat limited role and infuse it with fresh air.

Her character speaks rapidly in Spanish, often in defiance of Juan Antonio’s pleas to speak English for the benefit of Cristina. While she can occassionally be seen as vulnerable, María Elena is often more cocksure and confident, tormenting Juan Antonio about his ridiculous habits and his need for her, as well as proclaiming herself as the true genius in their relationship. (Later in the movie, Juan Antonio admits to Cristina that he was more inspired by María Elena’s style than he would like to admit.) She is interesting, passionate, and determined.

Which makes it even more of a pity that this film fails the Bechdel test.

For those, unaware, The Hathor Legacy breaks it down:

The “Dykes to Watch Out For” test, formerly coined as the “Mo Movie Measure” test and Bechdel Test, was named for the comic strip it came from, penned by Alison Bechdel – but Bechdel credits a friend named Liz Wallace, so maybe it really should be called the Liz Wallace Test…? Anyway, the test is much simpler than the name. To pass it your movie must have the following:

1) there are at least two named female characters, who

2) talk to each other about

3) something other than a man

Vicky Cristina Barcelona fails this test in the most frustrating way possible. Occasionally, the female characters do have conversations about life and art and architecture. We know this because the omnipresent narrator describes what they are talking about, rather than let Vicky, Cristina, or María Elena actually speak directly to each other. When they do speak to each other, they are talking about men.

Sigh.

The rest of the movie meanders on, the plot comes to a close, nothing is really resolved, everything ends pretty much as it began. It was a fairly enjoyable summer movie, one that is light in tone and easy to watch, made even better by walking down the street and grabbing some sangria afterwards. Yet, it wasn’t remarkable. And the characters weren’t very novel, paper thin representations of a certain type of womanhood and middle/upper class anxiety.

However, if we were instead watching María Elena’s life – complete with suicide attempts, frustration in art, two volatile love affairs, and a penchant for paint and firearms – I think I would have been more intrigued.

(Note: The title of this post reflects when I started writing it – in August. Oy…)