We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

_Vicky, Christina, Barcelona_ by Woody Allen · 20 August 08

Dear all,

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
(Kevin Dunn).

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

* * *


  1. From Fran:

    “Thank you for the review, Ellen. The film isn’t out over here yet, but I’ll keep an eye out for it, especially since it seems to have a fine cast and Barcelona is a great location for any film. Considering the title, I imagine Allen has also made the city itself one of the players.

    There’s a – not so terribly good – 90s art thriller that does the same, Uncovered with a very young Kate Beckinsale in the main role. It’s mainly memorable for all the atmospheric Gaudi­ buildings and parks it manages to fit into the plot:) Sad life; fascinating architecture.

    Elinor    Aug 20, 9:40am    #
  2. Thank you in return, Fran, for showing me how to spell the famous architect’s name. I admit I had never heard of him before, nor did I know of the penumbra or atmospherics of the culture of Barcelona—which Allen consciously plays upon, as well as that of Catalon culture (remember the medieval poet March we discussed a while back).

    There are pages on line which give an idea of this man’s fame and creations



    As the New York City Allen grew up in culturally dissolves away, and the elite world he entered into and wrote dream movies about grows smaller and more philistine (desperate is the real world) by the hour, he turns to other places. His vision of England was ludicrously superficial (he has Scarlet Johannson in that one too, with himself playing the part he used to play with Louise Lassner) and so he turned to Spain and I think found some liens in the culture he could fantasize himself into and make a movie with a statement about the importance of life’s passing pleasures at whatever price they come. As I suggested, he underestimates that price as well as cutting away all that prevents us from reaching the pleasures or embitters them in the first place.

    I’ll look out for Uncovered. Kate Beckinsale is found in curiously interesting films: she’s picked up by male directors as the woman who holds out and is sharp and mean. Penelope Cruz was just a delight in Vicky Christina Barcelona and in a way stole the show as you leave the movie remembering her. She and Javier Bardem were the deep romance couple embedded in the multiplot patterns.

    Elinor    Aug 20, 9:41am    #
  3. From Judy:

    “I also enjoyed this review – thank you, Ellen. Sadly the last couple of Woody Allen films don’t seem to have been released in the UK at all (or so briefly that I missed them!), and I see from the imdb there is no release date scheduled for this one – I hope it does turn up here, as I’d love to see it.

    Elinor    Aug 20, 9:41am    #
  4. Fran:

    “As I think I’ve said before, I’d never really thought much of Penelope Cruz’s acting skills until I finally saw her in her real element, native Spanish productions, where there was a difference of night and day. Perhaps the presence of such another great Spanish-speaking actor like Bardem made her feel more at home in this particular film.

    Kate Beckinsale herself is good in ‘Uncovered’ – it’s the director who didn’t make as much as he could have of the story, although it was Jim McBride, who had earlier made that very successful, sexily funny, atmospheric thriller ‘The Big Easy’, using New Orleans as a character as well. Somehow a similar mix didn’t work quite as well second time round.

    If you ever do see the Beckinsale film, though, you’ll definitely like the decors and outside shots and possibly the slightly transparent – none Gaudí- art plot as well.

    As you’ve probably seen in those links, Gaudí’s buildings are complete works of art: he designed the furniture, glasswork, windows and doors, too. Super stuff, all colours and curves, with nary a straight line anywhere. I took lots of pictures on our trips to Barcelona, two of which I had blown up to grace the hall, the Casa Batló and the Casa Milà, but like those online pictures they don’t really do justice to the real things at all.

    If you ever make it to Barcelona, once you’ve ‘done’ the Gaudís, galleries, ramblas and markets etc, it’s also worthwhile taking a trip out and visiting Cordorníu’s nearby cava winery. It wasn’t designed by Gaudí himself, but by a contemporary architect influenced by his style, Josep Puig i Catafalch, also a beautiful place:


    Elinor    Aug 20, 9:41am    #
  5. Thanks for the responses to both Judy and Fran. I can be correct on the name and have links to beautiful art. I’ve not been to Barcelona: in 1969 I was in Madrid, Granada and took a bus ride across the countryside to Portugal.

    Now I realize that Allen was actually modest or controlled in his photography. We only saw the Gaudi art and buildings when they were appropriately part of the story. He’s not always so controlled: in some of his older pictures, we were given a travelogue of beautiful buildings in NYC, and the film which took place in England was just ga-ga in love with upper class green lawns, landscapes and great country houses in England (as well as fancy palace like buildings which go by the name of clubs on Pall Mall).

    I’ve only seen Cruz thus far in Volver and she was remarkable there as she is here. Yes she lets something loose or releases an inner self, so vivid, dramatic and there :) (say (I helplessly).

    Movies are a wonderful addition to our lives—like books they extend our experience through sympathetic imagination and more, they have living breathing “movement images”. It’s not as good as going there, but it helps :)

    Elinor    Aug 20, 9:42am    #
  6. From Elissa:

    “Loved your thorough analysis of the W Allen Christina Barcelona film. Yes, Barcelona certainly is treated like Venice here; that recalls The Wings of the Dove to me where there is sort of a hidden, treacherous menage a trois that the man, Denscher, breaks loose from (although his breaking the group relationship is moral/spiritual, as one woman has physically departed the Earth).

    But Ellen, Allen, like Ingmar Bergman seems to use an omniscient/partly omniscient narrator a lot, yes? I recently rewatched Radio Days and couldn’t stop laughing.”
    Elinor    Aug 20, 7:40pm    #
  7. Thank you for the review, Ellen. It is heartening to see Allen going back to great cinema (and following once again Bergman.)

    The detached outside narrator you describe made me think, of all things, of Barry Lyndon.
    Catherine Delors    Aug 21, 3:57am    #
  8. A good friend wrote as follows:

    “By mentioning Woody Allen you have touched one of my hot buttons. Once upon a time I saw every Woody Allen film ever made, seeing them the moment they hit the theatres. Then he married his lover’s adopted daughter. Talk about abusing your position as patriarch (for he did play act the role of father to Mia Farrow’s adopted brood), and for getting away with (in my mind) unpardonable behavior.

    I have not seen a Woody Allen film since. I know he is a great and intellectual director, but I cannot get past the knowledge that in real life this man used his power to seduce a young girl under his care. I’m not sure Sun Yi was underage (I think he was careful that way), but she did trust him as a father figure and had known him since Mia took her and sheltered her.

    I don’t expect you to stop seeing Woody Allen films or writing about them :)”
    Elinor    Aug 21, 7:40am    #
  9. IN response to my friend, two days later I’ve been thinking that my blog is more about the front story of the film than its important back story—which is about Juan Antonio and (as I remarked) a justification of him.

    Juan Antonio is a surrogate for Woody Allen himself. I agree with you that Woody Allen has been a low cad many times, and in the movie Juan Antonio is a surrogate for Allen. The way we are led to accept Juan Antonio is unrealistic depictions of sexual passion and a white-washing of this type of male. I feel reactions from the gut are important. Much that we write is a rationalization of such reactions :).

    Let me bring in here one of the small appercus in Basinger's A Woman's View: How Hollywood Spoke ... : Basinger says of the 1946 film, A Stolen LIfe: that when the male star looks at the female “what he sees when he looks at a woman is not who she really is but what he can get from her that will make him happy.”

    Very good that :) —and resonates with real life immediately, something hardly ever openly admitted. And some women do look at men and ask themselves what they can get from him that will give them a happy life.

    Austen was right to suggest ironically through Darcy's teasing of Miss Bingley that women often do think immediately of permanent relationships (=marriage). To put this in modern generalizing terms, the man or he thinks of the passing moment (as Juan Antonio does), the women or she thinks of what her life will be like with him. Or at least I’ve been led to believe from my own experience as I don’t go for one night encounters much but want affection and relationship to go with it, make it softer, kinder, and take it out of the bedroom and not only into the kitchen but outside for walk and talk.

    About Allen’s life with Farrow specifically, I thought she was half-mad too. She adopted all those children! And the letters cited that she wrote to him were crazed with spite. So while I agreed with the judge, the one real mistake Farrow made was to get involved with Allen in the first place, and he was emotionally and in many other ways irresponsible, and was despicable when he seduced one of the adopted daughters, I didn’t write him off as not having had a side too.

    Elinor    Aug 21, 7:46am    #
  10. From Arnie Perlstein:

    “I strongly recommend that you see Vicky, Christina, Barcelona, and that perhaps later those who have seen it might briefly discuss one aspect of it that I believe has more than a passing resonance to one of JA’s novels (I won’t say which, but I think it will be apparent to anyone who sees the film who thinks about it).

    I think it just might be Woody Allen’s best film, certainly his best film in many years.

    Elinor    Aug 25, 9:01am    #
  11. Yes it resonates with Austen’s books as it stays within private life—only it justifies the promiscuous male :).

    I do think it’s effective and one of the best films Allen has done in a long time:

    It would be interesting to hear people connect it to Austen. There is the same indirect autobiography, as in Austen the heroines and other women characters function as surrogates, Juan Antonio is a surrogate for Allen.

    Elinor    Aug 25, 9:02am    #
  12. From Arnie:


    Don’t you think that Juan Antonio and Maria Elena serve a very similar function to that which the Crawfords serve in MP? In each case, we have a carelessly selfish, sexually boundary-less male-female “team” which leads two young innocents, who are closely connected to each other, into hitherto uncharted sexual and emotional territory.

    Having pointed out these similarities, I am not suggesting that Woody Allen was intentionally alluding to Mansfield Park—he’d have to have tagged the allusion in some way for me to claim that, and if he did, I missed it.

    Elinor    Aug 25, 9:03am    #
  13. It’s a revealing parallel, only Allen is justifying the apparently amoral pair and suggests they are not amoral: Juan is just honest, kind, deep-feeling and follows a hedonistic philosophy of life; Maria is hot-tempered and very sincere and dedicated to her art.

    It does show why moderns might not like MP. They would not find Allen’s justification of this pair troublesome at all.

    But no I don’t think Allen had MP in mind. In a previous movie he had An American Tragedy in mind, but no Austen here.

    Elinor    Aug 25, 9:06am    #
  14. From Arnie:

    “Excellent reply, and I would add, just to show a third perspective, that my wife felt that Juan was not a bad person, but that Woody Allen was (ineffectively, for her) trying to justify his own life history, as if to challenge those in the audience who have judged him to rethink it.

    And the best part of the film, for me, is that he was willing to leave all these things implicit and subliminally suggested, all of the intellect is submerged, subtle, mysterious without drawing attention to itself.

    “But no I don’t think Allen had MP in mind. ”

    And while I agree, how ironic that he was so Austen-like not only with the characterization, but in that authorial reticence!

    But won’t we both get a big laugh if during some interview during the next 7 months (because you know he’s getting Oscar nominations for Screenplay, Picture and Director, so he will be all the buzz for a while to come) he happens to let drop the A or the MP word! ;)

    Elinor    Aug 25, 11:20am    #
  15. I agree with your wife Allen was justifying himself. On what he may have in mind allusively: he often has movies in mind; he imitates other peoples’ and his own movies. He also is disingenuous so the movie which he said was based on Doestoevsky (and there’s a character in it reading The Cambridge Companion to ...) was about crime and punishment (only no one is punished), but a number of critics noticed An American Tragedy was closer.

    If you type in Woody Allen in my blog search engine, I believe you will find I wrote about this movie too.

    Elinor    Aug 25, 11:20am    #
  16. Lovely review. I recently saw the film in theatres as well and enjoyed it very much. The detached narrator is very Allenesque (and I found it quite consistent throughout the movie—almost too much so, when it seemed to describe obvious actions as though only to prevent losing the thread). I thought Penelope Cruz was great—she definitely stole the film. The interaction between her character and Javier Bardem’s was so well done.

    I feel the lack of explicit financial concerns, etc. in Allen’s films is similar to the lack of depiction of the servants’ life in Austen’s novels—it’s not part of the story they’re telling or the issues they’re concerned with.

    Did you see Match Point? I thought that was his best film in many years (and I’ve seen most of them), and I was happy to find Vicky Christina Barcelona in a similar league.
    Laura    Aug 25, 10:40pm    #
  17. Dear Laura,

    Match Point is the movie which recreates the central situation of Dreiser’s American Tragedy. Scarlet Johansson is the heroine who gets in the way of the hero: she has become pregnant and expects him to marry her, and he kills her in order to marry into an upper class very wealthy British family. This was powerful, but the filmed was superficial finally because the British characters were cardboard creations. He had no sense of the inner life & real culture of the upper classes in England or the realities of their ambivalent position.

    Elinor    Aug 26, 5:57pm    #

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