Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)
Directed by Woody Allen
Written by Woody Allen
Starring Scarlett Johannson, Rebecca Hall, Javier Bardem, Patricia Clarkson, Penelope Cruz
Release Date August 15th, 2008
Published November 23rd, 2022
Let's address the Woody Allen in the room. Vicki Cristina Barcelona was written and directed by a man who has credibly been accused of abuse. It's inescapable that Allen's abuses and his poor response to very public allegations, colors his work. As a critic reviewing a Woody Allen movie in 2022 I have to make a determination. I must decide if I am viewing the art or the artist and how much the artist is reflected in the work. Woody Allen is particularly complicated in this way as his films have all tended to be very personal, reflective of his life experiences and relationships with women.
Does his status as an accused, very likely real, abuser mean that his art must be shunned? Can we still view the work of Woody Allen and admire it even as we condemn him as a human being? I'd like to believe so but I am not of the authority to make that decision for everyone. I have to accept that if I choose to write about the work of Woody Allen and I find elements that I appreciate, I must accept that someone will take that as some kind of tacit endorsement of Allen. I don't endorse anything about Woody Allen the man but I understand where you are coming from dear reader.
Why have I decided to engage with the work of Woody Allen now? Because I think Rebecca Hall is incredible in Vicki Cristina Barcelona and it was her breakthrough performance. She became a mainstay among those who love great acting after this performance. And since my podcast is going to be talking about Rebecca Hall's most recent, incredible performance, in the 2022 horror movie Resurrection, Vicki Cristina Barcelona was, for me, an unavoidable corollary.
Rebecca Hall stars in Vicky Cristina Barcelona as Vicky, a grad student who accompanies her best friend, Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) on a trip to Spain. It's a getaway for the summer but it is also a working getaway for Vicky. Vicky is working on a masters in Catalan Culture and Spain is home to a portion of that culture which has a worldwide spread. Vicky hopes to explore the art and history while Cristina, an actress, is searching for an identity and looking to have fun.
Vicky can be fun but she's also engaged to be married to Doug (Chris Messina), a steady, stable, investment banker back in New York. The engagement and her academic pursuits limits Vicky's idea of fun. Restless Cristina, on the other hand, has nothing holding her back. Thus, when a sexy Spanish artist named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) approaches them out of the blue and invites them on an overnight plane trip to a small Spanish tourist town, Cristina says yes immediately and Vicky begrudgingly tags along.
To his credit, I guess, Juan Antonio is remarkably straight forward about his intentions. He is asking both Cristina and Vicky on this trip to show them a good time, enjoy great food, and to have sex. The sex can be one on one or all together, he's not picky. Cristina is charmed by Juan Antonio's bluntness while Vicky at least feigns being put off by the artists come on. Where the movie goes from here is a rather unique journey as each of these three people is forced to confront their conception of themselves, their identity, and their desire.
As a writer, Woody Allen has a knack for painting his characters into corners and forcing them to confront their situation and determine a way out. Allen lets not one of these characters off the hook easily. All three will be forced to confront themselves in ways that feel true to each. The internal conflicts find physical expression in art, sex, and the everyday decisions these characters make regarding one day to the next, to the future.
The construction of the plot is nearly flawless as Allen deploys his supporting character brilliantly to highlight the conflicts of our trio of leads. National treasure Patricia Clarkson may have a limited role but she works to provide a complication to Vicky's story that is perfectly timed. Chris Messina's character, Doug, may be merely functional in the plot but Messina infuses the character with life and he's used brilliantly as an example of Vicky's fork in the road.
And then there is hurricane Penelope. Penelope Cruz arrives in Vicky Cristina Barcelona as a violent, tropical storm of a human being. Cruz is Marie Elena and our leading ladies had been warned about her. Maria Elena is Juan Antonio's ex-wife and she was last seen in public having tried to kill Juan Antonio before disappearing. She comes bursting back into the story in a whirlwind of emotions and sets about disrupting Cristina's relationship with Juan Antonio and then insinuating herself into the relationship in an unconventionally romantic sense.
Cruz lifts an already really good movie into something even more exciting and fun. I've seen reasonable criticism of the character as not being a realistic depiction of severe mental illness. That's fair, this character is outsized and odd and you can sense that she is Woody Allen's conception of a fiery Spanish woman. I counter that argument by simply pointing out how real and exciting Penelope Cruz makes this character feel in spite of Allen's limited conception of the character. In lesser hands, this character might be a collection of stereotypical behaviors. In Cruz however, the character gains a layers, dimensions, and charm.
The heat that Cruz generates in the throuple of her, Cristina and Juan Antonio is off the charts, as you'd expect a three-way relationship between three sexy movie stars would be. But it is the unlikely hominess that settles in among the three that surprises in Vicky Cristina Barcelona. The relationship is revealing for all three as they are forced to confront their feelings, their desires, and their future. Cristina especially finds herself in this moment and Scarlett Johansson truly finds the character late in the second act.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is not a perfect movie and I hear those of you who find it difficult to take Woody Allen as being an insightful, thoughtful, and empathetic artist, but that's what he demonstrates as the writer and director of Vicky Cristina Barcelona. This observation doesn't excuse what Woody Allen did, it doesn't make him a good person, It makes Woody Allen a complex human, a problematic artist who has a lot to answer for in his personal life. There should certainly be a personal reckoning for the man. His movie, I've reckoned with that and I admire the work.
Find my archive of more than 20 years and nearly 2000 movie reviews at SeanattheMovies.blogspot.com. Follow me on Twitter at PodcastSean. Follow the archive blog on Twitter at SeanattheMovies. Listen to me talk about movies on the Everyone's a Critic Movie Review Podcast. If you've enjoyed what you have read, consider subscribing to my work here on Vocal. If you'd like to support my writing you can do so by making a monthly pledge or by leaving a one-time tip. Thanks!