Sunday, May 15, 2011

Modern Film Classics: Vicky Cristina Barcelona

“Lemon, the dating world is a lot like your haircut: sometimes, awkward triangles occur.” – Alec Baldwin to Tina Fey on 30 Rock
The good news is that both Woody Allen and Penélope Cruz currently have films at the Cannes Film Festival. The bad news is that they’re not working together. The truly terrible news is that while Allen’s presenting his much-admired Midnight in Paris, Cruz stars in the latest budget-busting, surefire-money-making, soulless Pirates of the Caribbean sequel. While the Blogger respects an Oscar-winning actor’s right to make a film solely for a paycheque as a break from continually stretching artistic boundaries the way Cruz has done in the last five years, why the Pirates franchise refuses to die like is beyond his comprehension.

Allen’s comic romance Vicky Cristina Barcelona premiered to considerable acclaim at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, became one of his most successful films, and won Cruz numerous prizes including an Academy Award for her inspired comic work. It remains one of the Blogger’s favourite films, and will form one of the first entries in his Modern Film Classics selections (look for the tag on the side for other titles).

The premise is simple: two American college students, Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) spend the summer in the titular Spanish city. The sensible, risk-averse Vicky is engaged to Doug, a stable lawyer in New York who has a suburban life waiting for them to settle into in Connecticut. Cristina is artistic and impulsive, evidenced by her sudden romance with local artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). The two friends are locked in a quintessential Apollonian / Dionysian contrast. Things get complicated as Vicky slept with Juan Antonio while Cristina was convalescing from food poisoning, Doug shows up to surprise Vicky on holiday, and Juan Antonio’s volatile ex-wife Marie Elena (Cruz) shows up, having tried to kill herself and needing care. In probably the strangest twist of all, Cristina, Juan Antonio and Marie Elena take each other as lovers and begin a three-way common-law marriage, and are impossibly happy. Or are they? And can it last?

Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a sun-kissed treatise that dares to ask the question: can perfect love work in threes, and not in twos? The Blogger knows at least one arrangement between three personal acquaintances for who the dynamic has worked perfectly for years. There’s a very telling exchange in the film once Juan Antonio, Maria Elena and Cristina have formed a perfectly agreeable cohabitation:

* * * 

Maria Elena: Our love will last forever. It’s forever but it just doesn’t work. That’s why it will always be romantic, because it cannot be complete.

Cristina: Maybe it can’t be complete because, you know, I’m getting in the way, or I don’t know, I feel like…

Maria Elena: No. Before you—before you, we used to cause each other so much pain, so much suffering. Without you, all this would not be possible. You know why? Because you are the missing ingredient, you are like the tint that, added to the palate, makes the color beautiful.

* * * 

From the plot summary above, one can configure this film into three distinct triangles. They are:

1. Cristina - Juan Antonio - Maria Elena
2. Vicky - Doug - Juan Antonio
3. Vicky - Cristina - Barcelona 

While the first two triangles are obvious – and I will leave them for you to discover by watching the film – the most intriguing is the one between the two women and the city which seduces them. The first two triangles, simply, can be read as complementary elements balancing one another, with the third element in each creating the necessary balancing effect. Barcelona is as picturesque as one can possibly imagine it, with numerous shots of the countryside and Gaudi architecture so stunningly perfect that one may cry at the mise-en-scène. There’s plenty of wine and tapas to ingest, and it seems as if Paco de Lucia’s guitar gently caresses each and every moment. Although the Blogger lives in a city nicknamed “Lotus Land”, he wonders if Barcelona is the European equivalent. In any event, one sees Vicky’s and Cristina’s strong attraction to the city and the big-picture philosophical question regarding love triangles is ultimately: can their relationship with Barcelona be sustainable? 

This film’s ultimate conclusion is that perfect love can be attained, but like all things in life, it can be fleeting and evanescent. While this may be a depressing conclusion on the face of it, Allen’s very best films end the way they are supposed to, and every ideal is qualified. It is only in his truly terrible films (Hollywood Ending, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, Scoop) where everything ends happily ever after. However, the hours of your life you’ll never get back from sitting through those shallow endeavous just to get a happy ending are not worth it. It’s refreshing to see one of our most hard-working directors attempt to bring a new-found European sensibility to inform his work, one which has sparked his creative renaissance of the last five years and has restored him to the league of our most respected cinematic artists.

Besides, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is an intriguing, seductive, sharp and witty look at love and its attendant conditions, good and bad. It’s so good, I actually Googled Barcelona hotels and flights, contemplating moving my blogging activities for the summer months to that city just because it seems like a perfectly brilliant idea.