Truth be told, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is not one woman with a particularly long and melodic name.
No, director Woody Allen in fact gives all three of his primary players title treatment in this 2008 romantic comedy: There's Vicky, the no-nonsense, soon-to-be-married brunette; Cristina, the wild-child, love-seeking blond; and Barcelona, the sexy, sultry city seemingly devoted to rending their lives asunder.
Neither Vicky nor Cristina knew their two-month stay in the beautiful Spanish city would affect them quite so profoundly. Vicky was just in town to study Barcelona's art and culture, and Cristina came along for the ride.
But their trip takes a detour when they meet the smoldering and scandalous Juan Antonio—a painter best known in Barcelona for his volatile relationship with his now ex-wife, Maria Elena. Juan Antonio sidles up to Vicky and Cristina's restaurant table one evening and asks them both if they'd like to fly to his hometown, see the sites and (if all goes well for the painter) sleep with him. Vicky has no interest. She is, after all, engaged to a great guy named Doug who is "decent and successful and [understands] the beauty of commitment." Cristina, who never quite grasped the concept of commitment, has no such reservations. And she eventually convinces Vicky to come along, just for kicks.
But before Cristina can sleep with Juan Antonio (who is always referred to by his full name), she gets sick, leaving erstwhile chaperone Vicky to knock around town with the artist. The following night, with her mind clouded by candlelight and wine and Spanish guitar, Vicky forgets about the beauty of commitment and opts instead for one night of passion with Juan Antonio.
If this was a boiler plate romcom, we'd all know how it would end. Vicky and Juan Antonio would realize they're soul mates and, despite a number of endearing-yet-embarrassing misadventures, would fall into each other's arms and have a good, long lip-lock by the final credits.
But this is a Woody Allen film, which means that's there gonna be a whole lotta confused soul searching going on while Juan Antonio proceeds to sleep with practically everyone in, and perhaps even associated with, the movie—except for the key grip.
As a travelogue, Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a tour de force—a moody, beautifully filmed masterpiece of tone and color.
[Spoiler Warning] The morality of the film, though, is messy, so there's not much to be said here. We can say that, through a bit of happenstance—and after one final temptation—Vicky does wind up going back to her new hubby. (They get married after Vicky's tryst with Juan Antonio, but before a last dangling encounter.)
Though Vicky, Cristina and Juan Antonio spend a great deal of time looking at Barcelona's magnificent Christian art and architecture, there is little overt spirituality presented. Even Vicky's wedding takes place before a justice of the peace.
When Vicky asks Juan Antonio if he's particularly religious, he says no. "The trick is to enjoy life and accept that it has no meaning whatsoever," he says. And because of that, Juan Antonio is out to soak up all the meager joys this fleeting existence has to offer. "Life is short, life is dull, life is full of pain," he tells the girls as he's propositioning them. "And this is a chance for something special."
Vicky fleetingly mentions that she fell in love with Barcelona and its Catalan culture through the Sagrada Familia, architect Antoni Gaudí's famously unfinished cathedral.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a film about the search for love, rather than love itself. But that, of course, doesn't stop its characters from physically consummating their search. And, thus, the whole movie is fairly saturated with a sultry vibe.
We see Juan Antonio and Vicky together. Clothed, they kiss and fall to the ground. Later, Juan Antonio rubs his hands seductively over Vicky's stomach.
We see Juan Antonio and Cristina together. The camera is riveted to their mashed faces, but there's little question as to what's going on elsewhere with their bodies. Later, we see the two in bed, sheets barely obscuring Cristina's breasts.
We see Cristina and Maria Elena together. They share a moment in a photography darkroom where each strokes the other's face and they kiss briefly.
And we see Juan Antonio, Cristina and Maria Elena together—all at the same time. They share romantic kisses and touches.
We also see one of Vicky and Cristina's Barcelona hosts smooching someone other than her husband—a woman who actively pushes Vicky to leave Doug and hook up with Juan Antonio (a bit of vicarious fantasy fulfillment on her part).
It's clear that Vicky and Doug had sex well before marriage since Doug quips that it took a bit of sweet-talk to get Vicky to go all the way with him. And we see the couple in bed together, apparently naked, following conjugal relations.
Doug cracks wise about Cristina being like a "Mormon wife" and admits that he finds Cristina's "contempt for normal values pretentious." Indeed, Cristina plays up her freewheeling open-mindedness with all the "look at me" vibe of an end zone dance, mocking morality and very consciously shedding what "the appropriate police" find appropriate. But eventually, she discovers that her divergent relationship with Juan Antonio isn't all that satisfying, and she breaks it off, still searching for love.
Following an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Maria Elena comes to stay with Cristina and Juan Antonio—who are a live-in couple by this point. We see Maria Elena in some pretty revealing outfits, including overalls from which her topside nearly overflows. Maria Elena and Juan Antonio clearly still have feelings for each other, and Cristina knows it. It's made clear that Cristina gives the pair "permission" to sleep together.
We hear that Maria Elena tried to stab Juan Antonio to death at one point. And we first meet her shortly after she attempts suicide by swallowing pills. She draws a gun and fires it several times, sending a bullet into (among other things) Vicky's hand.
Crude or Profane Language
The s-word is used about half-a-dozen times. While it's occasionally uttered in Spanish, the film's subtitles make it clear that that's indeed what was said. Characters also misuse God's name nearly 20 times (twice pairing it with "d--n") and Jesus' name three times.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Really, the film could've easily been called Vicky Cristina Bacchulona for all the fermented grapes this group consumes. (The Roman god Bacchus is known as the god of wine.) Entire vats are guzzled before the credits roll. Though no one is ever portrayed as falling-down drunk, several key players (or, in some cases, the helpful narrator) inform us when they've gotten a little tipsy (which is pretty frequently).
Cristina takes ill after a night of drinking and eating—perhaps because her ulcers make her stomach particularly susceptible to alcohol. Maria Elena asks for vodka shortly after her pill-based suicide attempt. Juan Antonio's father serves Vicky some cognac.
Both Juan Antonio and Maria Elena smoke, and we occasionally see them puffing on their cigarettes.
Other Negative Elements
Vicky never tells her fiancé/hubby about her dalliance with Juan Antonio. When she decides to meet Juan Antonio one last time, Vicky lies to Doug, saying she's going to have lunch with her Spanish teacher. And when Maria Elena shoots Vicky in the hand, she lies about that, too.
Onscreen kisses between Scarlett Johansson (Cristina) and Penélope Cruz (Maria Elena) have snagged most of the critical attention directed at this flick. And that—along with the loose-and-easy morals the kiss exemplifies—should be duly noted. But Woody Allen has more on his mind than shocking us with a lesbian encounter.
"Only unfulfilled love can be romantic," Allen tells us through Maria Elena. And if he's right, Vicky Cristina Barcelona must be one of the most romantic movies ever. No one gets out of this movie particularly happy. Vicky renews her commitment to a relationship that, apparently, she's not all that committed to. Juan Antonio and Maria Elena, after reuniting for a short time, splinter apart again in a hail of shouts, screams and glares. Cristina, the perpetual seeker, can't seem to fill that love-shaped hole in her heart—no matter how far and wide she looks.
All of Allen's characters are aching for fulfillment they can't find. Which makes for, perhaps, an unintended irony. I'd argue that the answer, in Barcelona, is as inescapable and as ethereal as air:
Barcelona is well-known as the stomping grounds of Antoni Gaudí, the architect I referenced earlier. He was one of the late 19th, early 20th century's most creative artists, eschewing the architectural fads of the day and following instead a vision all his own—an architecture based on the eddies and flows of nature, inspired by flowers and trees and river rock. His work belonged, and still belongs, to a school of one.
"The straight line belongs to man, the curved line belongs to God," he said. And indeed, Gaudí was a man of deep, unwavering faith. A Roman Catholic, he fasted every Easter and, in the last year of his life, turned down several jobs to work solely on his Barcelona masterpiece, the Sagrada Familia, which turned out to be his grandest work—and helped earn him the nickname "God's Architect." Gaudí intended his structure, which is still unfinished, to feature 18 towers (honoring the 12 apostles, the four gospel writers, Mary and, of course, Jesus). The tower dedicated to Jesus, at the center, he designed to climb 170 meters—one meter shorter than Barcelona's highest natural point, the Montjuïc. The reason: Gaudí did not believe his work should ever climb higher than God's.
The Sagrada Familia is scheduled for completion in 2026, a century after Gaudí died. A moviegoer not knowing that bit of history won't make any connection between Gaudí's work and Allen's story. But I see one. Maybe I'm giving Allen too much credit, but I think he may have intended Barcelona's most famous structure—pictured onscreen several times—to be an echo of his characters' quests for love; unfinished, unrequited, eternally romantic.
But for Gaudi, there was nothing unrequited about his love for God. He understood love in a way that Allen's characters simply can't or won't; that there is beauty in commitment, that love is the product of more than wine and Spanish guitar. And that love—through God—is deeply, breathtakingly complete.