When you listen to the voice of the Narrator (Christopher Evan Welch) in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” written and directed by Woody Allen, you get the sense that you’re listening to the audio portion of a DVD visit to Barcelona.
It’s a perky voice, an enlightening one. It’s confident and reassuring, like listening to Walter Cronkite. Though it carries the narrative forward, gives us insight into the characters’ thoughts, provides bridges over time-lapses, it might as well document the hedonist embodiment the laid-back city affords mavens of the man-made and the natural: the visual, the gastronomic, and the musical.
Picture it: a city that looks like a Zuburan painting. The art (lots of Miro and Miroesque work; a lot of paintings by artist/characters - God, what characters - that look like those mocha-tinted, gnarly doors you see in the old part of the Mediterranean city), the architecture (Gaudi, as in God-like), the meals (the wine), and the seascapes. Long-held shots on faces that are bedroom-eyes sensual, are cataclysmically mad, are classical and voluptuous, Dionysian and smoldering. Views from mountains and balconies, glimpses into church interiors, courtyards, dining rooms, and restaurants, side streets, and background music as well as performed music. All of which constitute shards of mosaics of shrines to a city that broaches no gulch between art as life and life as art.
But what this voice really does is anchor the story, provide it with an audible syntax. It’s the verbal equivalent of a painting’s stretcher support, a table’s legs, a face’s skeletal sculpture. It holds the movie together even as its protagonists roil with romance and passion, out of control.
For “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is the story of how three characters react to the delectable inquiry, is romantic love is a process or a result. Christina (Scarlett Johansson) thinks it's a process. She’s daring and exuberant, passionate, va-va-voom attractive (Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway, Mia Farrow, she most certainly is not), anything goes. She thinks nothing of going off for a dirty weekend with a stranger moments after she met him in a restaurant in a plane that he himself pilots. She’s grounded in the moment, on the prowl for amour fou. She’s artistic; she yearns to be both inspired as well as be someone’s muse, a little rudderless, and spontaneous. A lesbian encounter in a photographer’s red-tinted developing studio? Ménage a trois with her lover and his ex-wife? Sure, why not?
Vicky (Rebecca Hall) thinks it’s a result, something to wear like a fitted suit. She considers herself realistic in matters of love. She bats the word “commitment” around like a shuttlecock. She’s there to study the Catalan culture, the premise that brought her and Christina to Catalonia in the first place (why, then, can she not speak Spanish?). She’s not at all tempted, initially, at least, by a tall, handsome bohemian stranger. She’s got a fiancé stateside Doug (Chris Messina) who comes to Barcelona, with whom she elopes, and then plays bridge with some Americans. Her passion is orderly, reserved, and laser-focused. She’s very proper though you can tell, by the way she dresses and otherwise comports herself, that she’s an earthquake, a tidal wave, and an about-to-explode volcano all rolled into one.
And then there’s Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). He thinks that romantic love is both process and result. He thinks nothing of living his life in a state of perpetual tumult, torn between hitting on every woman he sees (“But Vicky, you’re not married yet”) and indulging himself (for that is the right word) in the fiery, passionate creative - and exquisitely irrational - demands of his ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz).
The arc of the film – it’s a sepia-tinted rainbow of romance and comedy – describes the way in which the tables get turned on everyone but Juan Antonio. He’s the kindling, Christina and Vicky are the sparks. Hence the movie’s title, a breathless, unpunctuated gasp of skywritten poetry. He doesn’t bother to put out the ensuing fire, hoping it will consume itself. Cristina falls right in with the spirit of free love but then, with the appearance of Maria Elena, his ex (they most recently split because, well, she tried to kill him), finds herself suddenly becoming very middle class and jealous. She decides she doesn’t want to settle down to a life of non-stop fervor after all but remain a mermaid on the prow of her as yet port-less ship of destiny.
Scrumptiously, inexorably, Vicky also falls for the smoldering and vulnerable Spaniard, hook, line and sinker, to such an extent that she’s willing to sacrifice her Long Island life with tennis lessons and business lunches. She doesn’t come as unhinged as completely and quickly as Christina, which makes her all the more sultry as well as sexy. She would have essayed a leap into the unknown-that-is-Juan Antonio except for a minor altercation (again Marie Elena, this time another handgun).
Juan Antonio, meanwhile, goes on his merry way, the embodiment of a city that doesn’t necessarily ever sleep but which ceaselessly tangos trippingly through love and infatuation, flings and reconciliations, a city with a furious back beat, living in the moment which also means pushing consequences back into the unforeseeable future. This state of perpetual romantic unrest may be the grist of art but it’s not the kind of thing to sustain the wide-eyed dreams of two college chums from the United States on a trip aboard who simply conspire to take in (and be taken in by) a little local culture.