Scarlett Johansson as Cristina is no longer the striking beauty she was when she stepped out of the Vermeer painting in The Girl With a Pearl Earring. Woody Allen has asked more of Johansson as an actress in all 3 pictures she has made with him. Her acting has progressively improved, and she has looked less like a hothouse beauty. As Cristina, she gives a creditable performance in this, her most difficult role. Allen imagined her as a sophisticated young woman just out of college who spent the last year making a 12-minute film about love and when it was finished she hated it. Now at loose ends, Cristina has no idea what she will do with her life. She is open to romance and adventure, and the only thing she is certain about is that she does not want a conventional life and a marriage of compromise. Like many women and certainly those in this film, Cristina worries that romance and conventional marriage do not go together.
Vicky (Rebecca Hall), Cristina’s best friend, thinks that “romantic love” is the fantasy of unrealistic women who believe Eros will liberate them. She plans on just the kind of “manageable” relationship Woody Allen has apparently chosen. In the 1960s discourse of the era of the Freudian philosopher Marcuse, Cristina is about “Eros” and Vicky is about “Civilization.” Vicky is grounded, engaged to a reliable man who has a good job, who adores and respects her. She is looking forward to her conventional marriage in the fall. In the meantime she is improving herself by getting a Master’s degree in Catalan studies, and when a relative from Barcelona invites her to the heart of Catalonia for the summer, she jumps at the chance. She invites Cristina, who has nothing better to do, to accompany her. Cristina is more than willing because Barcelona is also a legendary city of romance and adventure.
The 2 different kinds of young women are central to Allen’s plot. He confronts them with an attractive Spanish artist, Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who offers to fly both of them to the beautiful village of Oviedo for a weekend of sightseeing, wine drinking, and lovemaking. If you have in mind the Javier Bardem who played the monster Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men, Allen’s casting might surprise you. This is the Bardem of Schnabel’s Before Night Falls and Malkovitz’s The Dancer Upstairs. He is handsome, masculine, and sexy—a thoroughly appealing, relentlessly seductive Latin lover who would never force himself on a woman. Juan Antonio is the man Allen would hope to be in his next life.
In an unforgettable moment, Juan Antonio approaches Vicky and Cristina’s table in the restaurant and suggests a weekend threesome to the American tourists. Neither of these New Yorkers is quite that sophisticated. Vicky is appropriately shocked while Cristina is intrigued—this is exactly the kind of adventure to which she is open—she has already had enough Gaudi and Miró and other dead artists. Juan Antonio leaves the women to argue it out, and Vicky reluctantly agrees to accompany her adventurous friend—but not, of course, to join them in lovemaking.
The next scene is vintage Woody Allen. Inside a small plane, Cristina sits happily in the front seat with Juan Antonio who is calmly flying through a lightning storm as Vicky hangs on for dear life in the back. She did not want to go to Oviedo, and now she is going to get killed flying there on this ridiculous escapade.
The best Woody Allen comedy shakes you and the characters out of their settled beliefs and then allows us to go back to them reluctantly. This film is that kind of comedy. Just as Cristina is about to consummate the liaison, she gets violently sick to her stomach and is bedridden for the rest of the weekend. Juan Antonio, the perfect host but relentlessly seductive, shows a wary Vicky the sights of Oviedo, takes her to visit his poet- father and to listen to the romantic Spanish guitar music she loves. The guitar finally does it. The sensible, civilized, engaged-to-be-married Vicky succumbs to Eros and is smitten. After a night of romantic passion, her planned marriage will never be what she envisioned.
Vicky is not the only one caught in the struggle between Eros and Civilization. Vicky’s host and relative, Judy (Patricia Clarkson), is having her own crisis of love and marriage. She loves her good old reliable husband, but she is not in love with him. She is in love with his business partner. As her psychiatrist (this is Allen’s Barcelona) tells her, she simply doesn’t have the courage to go for the miracle of love that promises fulfillment. Judy and Vicky learn each others’ secrets, and Judy is determined that the younger woman not make the same mistake she did.
Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona is Woody Allen’s comic version of Anna Karenina or Emma Bovary, the tragic heroines who went for the Eros that promises fulfillment and ends in tragedy. His comic heroines test the waters but never take the plunge. However, there is more to Allen’s story, which can also be understood as a roman à clef. There is another complicated love and marriage, this one between artists Juan Antonio and Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz). Their tempestuous marriage ended in divorce after she stabbed him. Maria Elena has bipolar disorder! Allen has given Cruz ample opportunity to go over the top, taking emotional leaps that even Almodovar never allowed her. Maria Elena adds an Oscar-winning dimension that lifts this film out of shallow waters. And it’s not only that she rants and raves and threatens to kill Juan Antonio and his American tourists. In this roman à clef interpretation of Allen’s script, she is the incarnation of women from Allen’s past. Maria Elena claims that she is the real genius and that her ex-husband Juan Antonio stole her art. Allen’s telling of this story leads us to believe the claim may well be true in this film and in his life—that the women with whom he struggled, like Louise Lasser, Diane Keaton, and Mia Farrow, also gave him something for which they never got credit.
The film takes another turn when Cristina moves in with Juan Antonio and Maria Elena returns to finally make the threesome. You might think that Cristina had gotten what she wanted, but she stops feeling and starts thinking. She concludes that she knows she doesn’t want this, but she still doesn’t know what she wants. This pronouncement seems strange coming from Cristina; but it could be Allen’s own ironic conclusion about love and marriage.
Allen would undoubtedly despise this reading of his film. It is one thing to parade your own tortured psyche before the camera. It is quite another to have someone else expounding on its ramifications as if he understood the truth of the matter. The only excuse to be offered is that behind this film, one can see in this reading a more benign Woody Allen, a man resigned to his life, who knows what is missing but does not despair. Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona does not end happily, but it is an affirmation of humanity, another unexpected window into Allen’s comic rueful world.