We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.
I saw this movie on Sunday with Yvette, and would like to write about it this morning (before I forget it or it goes out of the theatres) as it is the first really brilliant movie Allen has made in years and I recommend seeing it. Interestingly, it defies and fits Jeanine Basinger’s conception of a woman’s film in A Woman’s View: How Hollywood Spoke to Women, the book we are reading together on Women Writers through the Ages just now.
On the real power of the film: it bypasses current and older fashions in movie-making. Allen does for today’s movies daring things: first he has a narrator whose presence is never explained beyond that he’s obviously our storyteller. This is so rare (except for some of Allen’s films and as I recall it’s not so consistent throughout the film), so rare, I say, I can’t think of a recent instance or one long ago, as the narrator continues throughout the film. At first it’s offputting, but then you begin to see that this allows for a depth of words and apprehension sheer dramatic scenes which are to be persuasive can’t allow. In fact the reason film adaptations are often seen as superficial is the film usually allows only realistic talk to be brought forth and voice-over cannot be omniscient or the character will seem absurdly pompous and unreal. By having a narrator Allen brings a complexity of insight and perception into the movie rarely seen—as his dramatic scenes do figure forth sharply what the narration has suggested.
Second, Allen abjures all the usual gimmicks, fancy technologies, speed, high and aggressive kinds of shots and filming so we can sit back and really watch a story with longish scenes (these are much longer than is the norm today) with complex characters interacting. I haven’t seen anything so satisfying or like this since Jim and I saw Bergman’s Sarabande, and this film is more intriguing because Allen’s characters continually break sexual and other taboos to show us real feelings people have which they often don’t act upon. Bergman’s characters show us the dark underside of ordinary or conventional norms, the way they are often carried out, but his people do not outwardly break those norms. The result in Sarabande is grimness; the result in Vicky Christina Barcelona is delighted release.
As to Basinger’s theory and way of reading films as a way women have available to them of discovering truths about life never openly admitted to and only seen fleetingly in real life: on one level, Vicky, Christina, Barcelona fits utterly: at the center of the film are two young women, Vicky (played by Rebecca Hall), who the narrator tells us has a conception of love which values strong commitment, prudent behavior looking to financial well-being and security in the future, and has conventional ideas about sexual experience; and Christina (Scarlet Johannson), who the narrator tells us wants adventure, risk, doesn’t mind being hurt if she gains a rich experience of life, does not want to be tied down to a conventional life avoiding risk and working towards a financially secure future. They are invited to stay with Vicky’s cousin, Judy (Patricia Clarkson), married to a man doing well financially, Mark
Unlike most of the characters Basinger deals with in 1930s to 50s movies, they are not centrally middle class and not lower middle struggling for financial security types. Rather, as in many Allen films, the characters are middle to upper class and intellectual and artistic in tastes and manners. Vicky is studying Catalan culture for her Ph.D., Christina has just made a movie and doesn’t know what she wants to do next but is interested in art. Judy takes them around Barcelona—which is presented as like Venice, having a rich unusual culture of its own among the elite and working class. They to to an art exhibit and there Christina is attracted to Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) a painter said to have murdered or beaten his wife, or maybe she tried to kill him; it’s not clear.
This young woman, Juan Antonio’s wife is described frequently before we see her, but usually from his point of view. What we don’t realize is she is a fourth heroine in the film, the only one occasionally filmed alone staring out at us (defiantly):
Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz)
Judy and her story, presented more fleetingly, is equally important. Our fourth heroine is named (and her name is repeated a lot before we meet her) is Maria Elena (played by Penelope Cruz just brilliantly, she was in Volver by Pedro Almodovar). Christina and Vicky have gone to eat & drink wine in a near-by restaurant; Christina sees him, and somehow sends him signals that let him know she is attracted to him and lets him know she wants to allure him over to her side. He (obligingly) comes over and has the (typical of him we learn) temerity to invite both girls to come with him in his plane to a small village to see some Antoni Gaudi (a 19th century architect of real fame whose work is an important element has shaped the way Barcelona is imagined and here and there looks today). They can then all three go to bed together. He says he finds them beautiful and they will enjoy the Gaudi architecture and statutes. Vicky is outraged and fearful; Christina wants to go. Juan Antonio is presented as finding nothing shameful or wrong in following his impulse and asking these girls to come with him. He does not see why they should not trust him.
To make a complicated film-story short: the girls go, Christina becomes ill with too much liquor (she is diabetic, a condition never much mentioned after that, although a serious disability). So he is left with Vicky and gradually he wins her over. She loves Spanish culture and art, and on their second night together alone they make love in the grass. But she is engaged to Doug (Chris Messina), a decent enterprising ordinary young man who makes a very good living and is doing everything he can to make a beautiful home (as he and she understand these things) together. He is her safe choice for life. Further, when they return to Barcelona, Christina begins to go out with Juan Antonio, and they appear to like one another so much that Christina goes to live with Juan Antonio as (she puts it) he is the sort of man who needs a woman to live with him. She also enjoys his company.
Christina (Scarlet Johannson) having a good time with Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), talking with his friends about art too.
But in the early hours of dawn while they are sleeping Juan Antonio’s ex-wife, Maria Elena calls them. She is in dire straits and he feels he must help her out, and goes to get her, and allows her to come and live with them. He explains as a matter of course that she’s just now in a hard place, no job, nowhere to go, no money so naturally he must take her in. It emerges that he has real depths of feeling and thought though he is absolutely promiscuous sexually. He and Maria Elena are deeply attached, in love (one might say), but fight ferociously. An on-going joke showing their closeness is how he is endlessly telling her to speak English and then himself falls into Spanish with her.
An apparently deep relationship of love-, and art-making develops
between the three of them after initial jealousy between the women.
Life together at Juan’s
Maria Elena is a powerful artist we are led to see and enables Christina to show her photos to them for the first time and teaches her to make beautiful photos—especially those with herself in the center. Maria Elena and Christina make love physically. Juan Antonio resumes having sex with Maria Elena. We are not told it there is an alternation pattern. This is left vague. Juan Antonia and Maria Elena now stop fighting because the intervening presence of Christina tempers the threesome into calm.
Meanwhile Vicky has discovered that she too yearns for Juan Antonio and is attracted to the life Christina is living with him. She is, however, kept on track (so to speak) by her knowledge of how she needs and would hurt her fiancee, Doug (Chris Messina) who (luckily for him if you think it’s luck he ends up with Vicky) comes to Barcelona to marry her as a really bold and rebellious act. Afterwards in NYC of course they have the big wedding. It’s unthinkable they wouldn’t.
A smaller parallel plot ensues when we discover how bored with her husband, Judy, is after Vicky sees Judy kissing someone in the hall at a party who is not Mark. Judy confesses she is no longer in love with Mark, but does not know how she could hurt him so by leaving him. She also is dependent financially on him (she hints at this as part of the reason she cannot leave him). Now Vicky confesses her yearnings for Juan Antonia and Judy proceeds (wrongly I think) to set up a party where Vicky will meet Juan Antonio once again. This occurs after Doug and Vicky have married. Judy thinks of herself as helping Vicky to escape Doug who is narrow minded (as it’s presented) about sex (he thinks the life Christina is leading with Juan Antonio and Marie Elena awful and wrong), not interested in original art, nor leading an adventuresome life. His idea is to get new equipment for the basement so they can enjoy better DVDs together.
Obviously Allen is deeply engaged in justifying a male point of view about sexuality, for Juan Antonio emerges as a sensitive good man who is just this loving free kind of person and is himself just honest.
Juan Antonio patiently explaining to Vicky (Rebecca Hall) why at the present moment they cannot go to bed together
The film is deeply engaged in justifying the unconventional uncommitted lifestyle—it’s against materialism for its own sake and prestigoius competition. Somehow it doesn’t matter if Juan’s father, a poet, never publishes. There is much contradiction here for everyone lives so luxuriously (including Juan) and Juan gets exhibited. We are never told how Christina gets her money to go to Paris when she tires of Juan and Maria Elena, which she does. Maria Elena is also presented stereotypically as crazily hot tempered—and not appreciating Juan Antonio’s calm quiet temperament, so that trivializes their quarelling.
But within this perspective, we have a film centering on women, which takes their lives seriously, ask what sort of life does the woman want to live. The decision is not between career and marriage (which is what Basinger says US movies of the 30s through 60s are on about), but what kind of love relationship one wants, what kind of career, what is a career—it’s more complicated and sophisticated than Basinger’s presentation in her book.
I admit I was very cheered by the film for the characters had fulfilling experiences: in bed, going to art exhibits, seeing beautiful places and things, drinking wine, having good talk. Probably this more than anything else justifies Allen’s perspective, that the characters know the intense happiness of daily kinds of fulfillment.
But beyond making them all casually rich and able to exhibit their work (all the while not occupied with networking and politicking as part of the front story), he does not really show us the terrible costs of emotional ties and how people have deep-seated hurts and resentments that are easily alit by real life (its money problems, getting prestige, being physically comfortable in the first place). After an initial strong discomfort, when Maria Elena is brought by Juan to live with Christina and him (because he feels intense respoinsibilty for her and she now has no place to live for a while), Christina learns happily to accept Juan and Maria Elena going to bed with one another and then she becomes part of the menage a trois. Could this be? Allen presents Christina as having true generosity of spirit and penness, but people are possessive and Maria Elena’s intense passionate angers are not rooted in the reality of relationships so are made to seem funny and that’s all. When Vicky tells Christina late in the film, she liked (fancied is the better word) Juan, Christina says “why didn’t you tell me,” for then she would never have gone out with him. The months she spent living with him are as a passing moment and don’t matter. People don’t really feel this way. At least I’ve not met any who could keep this up for long.
No one has children in the film; no one has sets of parents or relatives or a job that controls them; no one who wants to has trouble networking successsfully or making friends; again no one has any money troubles and no one discusses their need for financial security explicitly ever. We see no one working long hours in an office: Mark and Doug may but while we are seeing them, they don’t. They party, eat lovely good food and drinks goblets of wine continually like everyone else.
I am in my life in this neighborhood surrounded by Vicky and Dougs and they are off-putting. I don’t live this way,: I don’t position my grass as my young woman neighbor does; Jim is confounded by her husband who works long hours and then comes home to play docilely with children, and then goes out to socialize looking socially appropriate. On weekends this husband gardens, mows the grass. He says he does it because the wife wants it, but he is smiling all the while. (Jim is like John Knightley vis-a-vis Mr Weston in Emma; astounded at what would be a grim round for him.) But either could I live as Christina nor believe in Juan Antonio or Maria Elena as presented.
It’s a fascinating film, for it brings up these issues and why we live as we do or makes explicit the reasons for our decisions even as it remains silent about them (money, class, position, security). It’s very effective and pleasurable and like Basinger says makes
visible to us ways of living or doing things never usually seen but in private and often not then and makes us consider our lives more deeply and fully the way a great book can—only through images and real living sensual experience on the celluloid so maybe in ways books cannot achieve.
The use of the narrator is essential to the film’s depth, and I just
loved how he threw over the usual fancy technologies which have taken over films to their real detriment, sops to bring in fools (like stunt films). And the use of Gaudi references and shots of his work and casually of Barcelona and the Spanish landscape added to the pleasure. It would be a shame to miss it.
Posted by: Ellen
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