Monday August 18, 2008
How Owen Gleiberman gets ‘Vicki Christina Barcelona’ wrong
Have you seen what Entertainment Weekly is doing with their movie reviews? Instead of giving us the money sentence as a pull quote, they simply bold the money sentence within the review. Your eye is immediately drawn to it. I’m not sure how this differs from a pull quote but it does. The pull quote feels like a highlight reel: here’s the most important at-bat in the game today. Bolding a sentence within the review is like showing the highlight reel as the game is just starting. It’s like making one sentence Albert Pujols within the St. Louis Cardinals line-up: Here’s the important one. These others? Hacks. Don’t pay them any mind.
That said, the money or bolded sentence in Owen Gleiberman’s review of Woody Allen’s Vicki Christina Barcelona — “To Allen, commitment is a conspiracy of society. It’s a drag, man.” — did make me read the others. Because it made me think: “WTF is he talking about?”
In the film, Allen gives us two ways of being, embodies them in two American tourists in Spain for the summer, and lets them go.
Vicki (Rebecca Hall) is a Catalan scholar who is engaged to be married to a New York businessman. She knows what she wants. Her friend Christina (Scarlett Johansson) is unmoored. She’s just spent months acting in a 12-minute experimental film that she now disowns. She doesn’t know what she wants.
Thus when they meet Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a Spanish artist, at a late-night restaurant, and he proposes taking them away for the weekend (taking both of them away, at the same time, and into the same bed), Christina is intrigued while Vicki is repulsed. Promising nothing, they go, Vicki to protect Christina. Of course, through a series of mishaps, it’s Vicki who winds up sleeping with the artist, and that night of passion becomes the pebble in what were once comfortable walking shoes. She’s bothered, unsure. She no longer knows what she wants.
Back in Barcelona, Christina hooks up with Juan, and gets involved in his artistic life with his artistic friends, including his volatile ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz, the best thing in the film), and the twosome becomes a threesome, and Christina, who knows no artistic outlet, finds one, via photography. Meanwhile, Vicki, whose fiancé flies to Barcelona to join her, keeps walking around with that pebble in her shoe.
This is the source of Gleiberman’s sentence and review. He feels Allen is recommending the wild, artistic European life over the dullness of American business-as-usual. But while aspects of the artistic life are clearly intriguing (Bardem and Cruz, for starters), that’s not what the film is about. How do you deal with the emptiness? That’s what the film is about. Both characters have it. Vicki fortifies herself against it — only to find her fortifications aren’t enough. Christina allows herself to drift from intrigue to intrigue, from acting to photography, from this bed to that one, but always finds the solace temporary. Then she moves on. Neither has the answer because there is no answer. It’s just two ways of being. In the end, neither is happy.
The narration in the film moves the story along, but — and here’s my criticism — it’s a bit like Vicki, isn’t it? Tightly controlling the story, when the story, and the characters, should be allowed to move more freely. Gleiberman makes the same point when he writes that Vicki and Christina “never quite transcend the schematic.” Exactly. The narration (i.e., Allen), doesn’t allow them to. The turning point is when Christina, having found an artistic outlet, a man and a free-spirited life, gives it all up. Why? The narrator tells us that her gnawing emptiness returns. She looks off into the distance and she’s gone. But the scene feels externally controlled rather than internally motivated…because it is. The narration, as zippy as it allows the film to be, becomes a puppet master, moving the characters about to serve its own purposes.
Doesn’t mean VCB isn’t worth seeing. Cruz deserves an Oscar nomination for her performance. She’s so spookily direct that you don’t want to be with her — even though she looks like Penelope Cruz. Now that’s acting.
More, for all the film’s soft lighting and long, wine-filled lunches and dinners, for all its lightness, the theme of how to deal with life’s emptiness remains and is reflected back upon the viewer. You leave wondering which character you’re more like. Do you determine your spot and wall yourself up? Or do you flit from spot to spot, undefined? Some combination of the two? You examine the choices you’ve made. In what ways have I settled? In what ways am I unfulfilled? How do the two relate? It’s not that the film becomes a pebble in your shoe; it just reminds you that the pebble’s already there, and probably always will be.