Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Woody Allen, 2009) is a film about love. Or, to be more precise, it’s a film about the nature of love.
As we first encounter both Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), the camera hovers on the pair in the back of the cab they take into the city, and the narrator tells us that Vicky “…had no tolerance for pain and no lust for combat. She was grounded and realistic. Her requirements in a man were seriousness and stability”. In other words Vicky wants a love that is anchored, she wants the trappings of a successful middleclass life and a life that is only attainable if she is married without making any rash decisions.
Cristina, in comparison, is fiery and indecisive. She has the habit of letting her emotions rule her head and is a romantic of the passionate kind: “She had reluctantly accepted suffering as an inevitable component of deep passion, and was resigned at putting her feelings at risk. If you had asked her what she was gambling on her emotions to win, she would have not been able to say.”
Cristina wants to be engulfed by her emotions while Vicky likes to stay in control. The irony of the film is that both end up sleeping with the same man.
Pragmatic love is the stoic middleclass reaction to life. We are born, we get an education, we get married, we have children, and raise them. Romantic mode of love is an attempt to live life to the full, regardless of where it takes you. In the case of Cristina it takes her in to the bed of Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) – this would be her gamble with her emotions – but at no point would this relationship be a challenge to her own values. Yet for Vicky her relationship with Juan Antonio is a direct challenge to her pragmatic, moral framework.
This moral dilemma is represented in the scene where Cristina and Vicky first meet Juan Antonio face-to-face. Juan Antonio approaches the American holiday makers while they are dining on a late evening in Barcelona. He says: “I would like to invite you both to Oviedo… for the weekend. We leave in one hour. I go to see a sculpture which is very inspiring to me… I’ll show you around the city, we’ll eat well, we’ll drink good wine, we’ll make love.”
Of course, it is Vicky who takes offence. “Who exactly is going to make love?” she asks. Juan Antonio answers: “Hopefully the three of us.” Vicky is challenged, not only by the sheer audacity of Juan Antonio, but also by Cristina’s romanticism.
Juan Antonio is willing to take Vicky’s scepticism with a pinch of salt. He wants to live his life free of bourgeois illusions. Vicky still ends up making love with Juan Antonio.
Unlike Vicky, Cristina and Juan Antonio, Juan Antonio’s father is a solitary man who has retreated from the world – because those around him have not learnt how to love.
Vicky asks Juan Antonio: “Why won’t your father publish his poems?” Juan Antonio sighs: “Because he hates the world, and that’s his way of getting back at them, to make beautiful works, and then deny them to the public.” Vicky asks: “What makes him so angry towards the human race?” Juan Antonio replies: “Because after thousands of years of civilisation they still have not learnt to love.”
Juan Antonio’s father believes the world could be a utopia, instead it is an ugly place that does not deserve his consideration. He therefore retreats from society in the most profound, unrealistic, and negative terms. By cutting himself off from society and by his failure to engage, Juan Antonio’s father, has committed a spiritual suicide – a retreat from society in the name of love is society’s loss.
Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), Juan Antonio’s estranged wife, represents the burning engulfment of love. A person so open to the world that to live with their strength of emotion can only bring about constant attempts to destroy one’s very existence.
Maria Elena is an extreme version of Cristina’s romantic ideal, but Maria Elena’s emotions burn so great that all control is lost, and the beauty of these emotions become self destructive.
While out on a picnic with Maria Elena and Juan Antonio, Cristina says: “It’s sad really, because I feel I have a lot to express… I’m not gifted.” Maria Elena replies: “But you do have talent.” Cristina: “What’s my talent?” Maria Elena: “You take beautiful photographs.” Juan Antonio says: “That’s true, she always takes pictures she hides from me.” Cristina: “No that’s because they’re nothing. How do you know I take pictures?” Maria Elena: “I found them in your luggage.” Cristina: “You went through my luggage?” Maria Elena: “Of course I went through your luggage. The first night I was in the house I didn’t trust you. I didn’t believe who you said you were. I really wanted to know who was sharing the bed of my ex-husband. Who knows what I was going to find there? How could I be sure you were not going to hurt me? After all I had thoughts of killing you!”
Here the destructive impulse of love comes through – at the end of the film she fires a gun at both Juan Antonio and Vicky.
In Vicky Cristina Barcelona there are five separate ideas of a definition of love. Vicky’s pragmatism, facing the world with a sceptic analytical eye. Cristina’s romanticism, the opening of the emotions to the winds of life. Then there is Juan Antonio with his challenge to any form of bourgeois pragmatism – a challenge both to love and the shape of the world. The reverse of this is his father’s idealistic spiritual suicide, unwilling to commit to a world that he feels does not love, when all those around him live with an intensity that could run towards destruction – the position occupied by Maria Elena.