Thursday, April 23, 2009

Film/script Review: Vicky Christina Barcelona - How The Mighty Have (Woody) F(Allen)?

In my screenwriting classes, I've often used Woody Allen films as teaching materials. Bullets Over Broadway and The Purple Rose Of Cairo being two particularly useful films in this regard. Love And Death is one of my favourite comedies ever (yes, I love the early funny ones). And I usually found something to enjoy in later Allen pictures, even though the potential for comedy was generally not exploited to the maximum (Hollywood Ending, for one).

In recent years, Woody Allen has broadened his palette: he's left New York for Europe, he's tried new genres, he's moved away from his own Neurotic New Yorker-persona in his films (whether played by himself or by John Cusack, Kenneth Branagh et al.), and he examines new themes - or at least puts new spins on old ones.

Unfortunately, this innovative period seems to have coincided with a dramatic decrease in storytelling ability.

Case in point: Vicky Christina Barcelona.

MAJOR spoilers follow about the entire film - you have been warned.

Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johansson) are two young American girls who go to visit Barcelona, staying with relatives of Vicky's. Vicky, engaged to be married to decent, handsome, somewhat dull Doug, is doing a master's degree on Catalan identity, Christina has artistic ambitions but is at a loss about what to do with her life.

In Barcelona they meet a sexy Spanish painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), who wastes no time inviting both girls to join him on a trip to a little town called Oviedo, to see the sights and have sex with either or both of them. Christina agrees, Vicky doesn't, but ends up accompanying both of them anyway. When Christina falls ill, Juan Antonio seduces Vicky.

Once back in Barcelona, though, he goes after Christina full tilt, leaving Vicky hurt and doubting what she wants in life (her engagement). Suddenly Juan Antonio's ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), who had tried to kill him, returns to upset his relationship with Christina. But things turn out surprisingly: Christina turns out to be the missing ingredient in the relationship between the ex-spouses, and soon they are involved in a harmonious bisexual three-way relationship.

Christina is encouraged by Maria Elena to develop her talent as a photographer, and everyone seems happy until Christina becomes restless and dissatisfied and leaves her lovers, to their anger and chagrin. She takes refuge in Antibes to gather her thoughts.

As soon as she's gone, Juan Antonio and Maria Elena once again start fighting all the time. Juan Antonio turns to Vicky, even though she's married to Doug by now. Thanks to the manipulations of her female relative, who is trapped in a passionless marriage and wants to save Vicky from the same fate, Vicky ends up on a date with Juan Antonio.

But when they visit his studio, they are attacked by an hysterical Maria Elena who fires a pistol at them. Juan Antonio disarms her, but in the ensuing shouting match the gun goes off by accident and Vicky is wounded in the hand. This is the final straw and she leaves Juan Antonio and Maria Elena for good. But when she and Vicky return to the States, both are unhappy: Christina because she cannot ever be satisfied, Vicky because she realizes she's trapped in a passionless marriage and she really does want that passion after all.

Now - where did Woody Allen go wrong this time?

He forgot the cardinal rule: Show, Don't Tell.

VCB uses a narrator throughout the movie, an omniscient presence who does not play a part in the film. I was very much reminded of Henry James, for some reason - in any case, the tone of the narration is very much that of a late 19th - early 20th century short story. Alas, it also fulfills the same function as it would in a short story: it tells the reader what is happening and what the characters are feeling at that very moment. And Allen more often than not either shows us exactly what the narration is describing, or, and this is even worse, makes no attempt at dramatizing the emotional information we are given. We know Christina is free-spirited because we are told this several times. We never see her do any particular free-spirited thing.

So the narration is often used as a narrative shortcut, which results in the actual scenes being devoid of tension, emotion, conflict or emotional affect.

When there are scenes of conflict, or where the characters show their opposed mentalities/personalities in action, the dialogue is usually full of Big Ideas, instead of actual character revelation. Vicky and Christina often sound more like students in a university debate on ethics, rather than vibrant young women in confusing emotional straits.

Juan Antonio and Maria Elena are in shrill contrast to this: they are far more alive and compelling characters, especially as portrayed by Javier Bardem (in full Don Juan mode) and Penelope Cruz. Cruz especially invigorates the film, with her extremely volatile and passionate personality and her wonderful leonine hairdo. By contrast Mss. Hall and Johansson just fade away into the background, both giving a low-key performance. Which is not hard to understand, as the script doesn't really give them the right material to work with.

If we consider whose story this is, that question is fairly hard to answer. The climax belongs to Vicky, and she's the one who changes most throughout the film (though her evolution comes quite quickly and is already cemented by the time she has sex with Juan Antonio). She all but disappears from the central narrative, though, becoming a witness to the passionate love affair of Christina. Then, at the end when Christina has 'left the building', so to speak, Vicky enters the spotlight again.

But the fact is, it's hard to care for either of them.

Christina is filled with self-doubt (hates her artistic endeavours, thinks she has no talent), and she's unable to really experience long-lasting pleasure. In this, she's a female cousin of Annie Hall's Alvy Singer. But unlike Alvy, she's not funny, she's not pro-active and her self-centeredness makes her come across as shallow and cold. And the fact that we never even get to understand why she breaks up the ménâge à trois, what she brings to it that is the 'missing ingredient' ,or that we experience the emotional or rational struggle she goes through, doesn't allow us to empathize with her.

Vicky we do understand - but she's dull, she nags, she's a hypocrite, and on top of this she's a coward: she doesn't dare to follow her passion to the bitter end like Christina, she's afraid of emotional pain. And so the gunshot wound she suffers at the end has a highly symbolical value as well. (It could be said that Christina's running away from her lovers is also a form of cowardice,

What this all adds up to, is an uninvolving, remote meditation on the pains of love. There's enough material here for an out-and-out melodrama, a farce, a black comedy, an insightful psychological drama... Instead we get an almost clinical, theoretical exposé on the matter. Not even subtext is at work here, because the narration tells us everything we need to know. The audience isn't allowed to work out what's really going on between the characters, and for those elements we don't get explained to us, there's insufficient dramatic material present for us to come to any meaningful conclusions.

This is probably intended as a comedy of manners, though there are no laughs to be had, and the darkness at the heart of the tale is counteracted on screen by some truly lovely camerawork showcasing Barcelona and Catalonia at its most beautiful, suffusing everything with a golden glow. Which unfortunately does also give the film a sort of travelogue-like air at times (but that has nothing to do with the script per se).

I may use Vicky, Christina, Barcelona in future courses on screenwriting, but as an example of what NOT to do when it comes to using narration. And that's really a sad thing to realize (Allen's voice-over narration of Radio Days, for instance, was a brilliant example of how to make this kind of thing work).

Oh, and for the record: Javier Bardem's paintings in the film stink.

If you want to check it out for yourself, you can get the DVD here:

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