Sunday, August 17, 2008
“I affirm life despite everything.” -Juan Antonio (Bardem)
When I think on Vicky Christina Barcelona I do not wallow in the mire of a pointless existence, even though there are underpinnings of this attitude in the finale of the film, which brings each character, principle and peripheral, in spite of their actions, right back to where they started, stifling their actualization, slave to their old moralities, emotional trends, and life decisions. It’s a powerful note to end on, the futility of our efforts as emotional irrational individuals, but again, I don’t remain on it too long. This feeling, intentionally or not, isn’t made to resonate as deeply and lastingly as the films overarching elements of sensuality, complex love, the challenging of our moralized concepts of love (ie commitment, marriage, exclusivity, orientation, etc), and the vulnerability we experience in love being so close to the kind we experience in travel. However ironic, I felt affirmed of life after watching this film. And even though I sometimes have little sympathy for the woes of the wealthy, especially those that can summer in Spain without batting an eye, I'm continuously interested in Allen's dissection of the subject, and his career spanning reveal of the cross-class inevitability of emotional starvation.
Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), the empassioned, intrepid, and quite forward Spanish painter who boldly propositions single Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and engaged Christina (Scarlett Johansson), two friends on summer holiday in Spain, to join him for a weekend in his hometown, speaks of love and life as transient, and so this translates into the unfolding of the film itself. Things never feel constant. But no matter the brevity of experiences, they are still had, emotions are felt, and we are changed in accumulation, no matter how concealed we are about it. Vicky Christina Barcelona doesn’t follow a straight narrative path. Rather it deviates and accumulates, allowing things to fall in and out of sync with one another.
Vicky… keeps a curious softness throughout, despite the innate seriousness of its mingled ideas of expectation, love, and futility. This is due in part to Allen’s dynamic lightly incisive writing, and due also to having elected cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe (Talk to Her), to shoot Vicky. The result is a sensuous and yet mildly stated series of softly moving, sunlight bathed, intimate sequences that showcase Spain as much as the tumult of characters discovering, breaking, and then rebuilding their personal boundaries. For a film so attentive to the Spanish setting and the intimate experience of two women within those borders, it was a perfect choice to utilize someone of cultural knowing and familiarity to capture their images. Helping this visual moderation along, Allen never saturates his film in any kind of situationally obvious gratuities, like depictions of explicit sexuality, and yet there is a constant weave of sensuality and eroticism, not unlike the heightened sensitivity of people about to make love.
The character of Vicky, the determined, intellectual, pragmatic, and generally unimpulsive brunette who is an emotional foil to Christina’s cavalier, is most certainly channeling Allen himself in her qualities and pentameter, as is the film as a whole. But the trinity of Vicky, Christina, and Juan Antonio are more so an equivalency to the moral trinity of Allen’s last effort, Cassandra’s Dream. If Ian (McGregor) stands for the one who can disagree with but stomach a grave immorality (murder) in concern for his ambition, and his brother Terry (Farrell) is the one who cannot cope and cripples with guilt and self-disgust after the transgression, and their uncle Howard (Wilkinson) is the completely unsentimental schemer who commissions the murder in pure self-interest, then Christina is Ian in her impulsiveness and wide-eyed self-concern, Vicky is Terry in her seduction into breaking her moral code and the resonance of her guilt and moderate psychological unraveling, and Juan Antonio is Howard. Juan Antonio is not at all the insistent, detached, and calculating man that Howard is, but he shares both in his directness and in his ability to move on unbroken by losses and experiential transience, never void of, but never crippled by nostalgia.
Some have put forth that Cruz’s character Maria Elena, Juan’s tempestuous ex-lover, is nothing more than an attractive distraction from the films moderate and less-than-causal unfolding, with her surprise arrival halfway into the film (which is only the continuation of her constant mention by Juan to Vicky and Christina). To consider that true is to be in neglect of her bountiful functionality within Vicky Christina Barcelona’s weave of self-defeatisms and imbalanced passions. Maria and Juan’s fervent but otherwise poison-spitting romance offers Christina, who moves in with Juan and is the better fit than the frank and focussed Vicky, a venue to be sensually, creatively, and emotionally actualized. Christina repeatedly iterates how she has so much love and so many ideas to offer, but doesn’t know how, or have the talent to, share them. She floats through life half-finishing things, bursting with new passions and then straying as they fizzle. The strength of this amorous intermediary capacity, with her own heart being the bond between two others as she enters into a triangular relationship, is what emphasizes how systemic what Maria Elena describes as “chronic dissatisfaction” truly is for Christina.
Maria Elena encourages Christina to follow her existing penchant for photography. And so it burgeons into a promising creative outlet for Christina. Maria Elena and Juan Antonio even build her a darkroom so that she can explore her craft. Maria Elena convinces Christina to take photographs with film rather than in digital so that there is no intermediary between her and the tactility of creating and making art, and in the end it is but another layer of sensuality added to the film’s texture. Not only do Maria and Juan help Christina actualize herself creatively, but also actualize sexually. And what’s more is that they offer Christina the opportunity to be a ‘facilitator.’ Christina is “the missing piece” of the Juan and Maria puzzle, that in its absence results in erratic and violently empassioned frustrations. Maria attempts suicide twice in fact, and almost accidentally kills Vicky, now married to her fiancé Doug who flew to Spain for an early ceremony, when she meets Juan for a final rondezvous.
“Maria Elena and I are meant for each other and not meant for each other. It’s a contradiction. Maybe you have to be a poet like my father to understand it, but I don’t.” With Christina, a balance is earned between Juan and Maria. It may be partly to do with her existential insecurities that create an avenue of focus for Juan and Maria, and maybe it is Christina’s passivity that radiates and softens them. In any case, she brings stability and an idealism along with these qualities.
Amidst all of this compounded positivity and direction lavished upon Christina, she still finds her commitments wavering and finally dissolving. Just as Juan describes his polarized romance with Maria as a contradiction, Vicky is also slave to her own contradiction. She fears complacency and yet is continuously complacent in her distancing from situations, places, and people. Juan Antonio understands this, so when Christina breaks up with him and Maria Elena, he is the calmest and most sensitive person in the room, pleading to an enraged and wounded Maria that Christina will find the right person one day, but that it simply is not them. He brings them together in an embrace and tells them to think upon and be thankful for the love and happiness that they had fleetingly created together.
After all that happens, of which there is MUCH I have not mentioned, everyone ends up at the starting line again, no matter what individual paths they took during the summer. Vicky is still looking for the elusive “something more,” Christina is married just like she always planned on being even though there is an irreparable splinter in her formal concept of commitment and stable love, and Maria and Juan are unable to be with each other despite their kindred nature. It seems dismaying, but if you get caught up in the “what’s the purpose of life if we all suffer and ultimately cease to exist” you wont see each moment for its own sake. I’m reminded of a line from the recent incarnation of ‘Brideshead Revisited’ in which the character of Charles Ryder says with such clarity “I want to look back on my life, and say…that I lived…” It is exactly the line I dwelt on as Vicky Christina Barcelona closed its curtain.