Vicky Cristina Barcelona: What’s the Life Worth Living?

The movies of old used to be simpler, at least from the present standpoint. The heroes and heroines had their problems, but they had the answers. The going got tough, but they knew what to do and went about doing it. 

Somehow, that kind of fairy-tale faith and optimism has been fading of late, if not gone altogether. We still have heroes and heroines, and they still have problems, but the thing is, the answers no longer come easy. Blame it on modernism, post-modernism, existentialism, capitalism, relativism, or whatever ism you can think of, but it’s all become confused.

And very much tragic.

I got to reflect on all these after I watched Vicky Cristina and Barcelona, Woody Allen’s new film, for which Penelope Cruz won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Anyway, to prove my point, you’d have to know the characters first and their stories.

Vicky – she is about to get married to Doug, a rich businessman. Her relationship philosophy? She seeks stability and commitment, never having time for games, “empty sex,” and that sort of thing.

Cristina – she is looking for love, but never finding it, jumping from one relationship to the other. She’s impulsive, carefree, the opposite of Vicky. She doesn’t know what she really wants, only, as the movie puts it, what she doesn’t. The two, however, are best friends.

Juan Antonio – an artist, he has just gotten off a bad divorce. His ex-wife had tried to kill him. Like Cristina, he is carefree, openminded, spontaneous, smooth, suave and very much a Don Juan.

Maria Elena – Juan Antonio’s ex-wife and an artist as well. She is very much like Juan Antonio, only more violent and goes Fatal-Attraction when her relationships aren’t going well.

Here’s how the movie turns out.

Vicky is turned off by Juan Antonio’s aggressiveness and casual approach to love and sex. But a weekend with him, she falls in love and end up having sex. Her world is turned upside down, but marries Doug anyway. She isn’t happy, almost breaks off the marriage, only to have her snap back to reality when she gets shot on the arm as Maria Elena confronts Juan Antonio over why he’s meeting with Vicky. Shouting “both of you are completely insane, she returns to Doug but enters a marriage that she’s not really into.”

Cristina falls for Juan Antonio too, and all goes well with her. She even gets into a menage-a-trois with Juan Antonio and Maria Elena. She’s happy at first, receives encouragement from the two regarding her photography skills, but eventually realizes that she can’t handle the set-up. She breaks it off and goes back to the United States as loveless as ever.

Juan Antonio and Maria Elena are the perfect fit, except for the fact that their two mercurial, impulsive natures are often clashing. It’s a volatile, combustible relationship, and the fights and shouting matches are rather nasty. They consider Cristina as the missing element that stabilizes their relationship and taps their creative powers more.  But when Cristina decides to call it quits, the two artists split up again, with much of the usual shouting.

Basically, everybody ends up unhappy. And this is the tragedy.

In Vicky’s case, she realizes how dull settled life is, despite her protestations that Doug is a great guy. She thought she knew what she wanted, but meeting Juan Antonio turns her whole world upside down. Vicky’s story, however, is not just about the feminine mind’s fickleness. It also has a touch of criticism of American way of life, here characterized as shallow and materialistic, not to mention moralistic, judgmental, puritanical and boring. The Spanish way of life is more romantic, cultured, refined, sophisticated, with Gaudi, guitars, candlelight dinners, steamy sex and free love. Bohemian and artistic.

But this is not just your standard critique of America. For even this bohemian lifestyle of Spain is subject to assault himself. It is fun and all, but it is a recipe for disaster as well. The two proponents of this lifestyle, Juan Antonio and Maria Elena, fail in their relationships as much as Vicky and Cristina do. The former’s, however, are more volatile and violent.

Where does this leave us? What kind of life should we live? To have a settled, stable life and live the American dream or to be spontaneous, aimless and free-flowing? For the movie, it’s neither. Both are flawed. The first is dull and shallow, as we have said. The latter is, in the words of Vicky, completely insane. One of course could be tempted to say, “a middle way, a compromise between stability and spontaneity.” Well, uhm, I dunno how this will work in practice. Sometimes, you must be stable, sometimes, you must be spontaneous. But how would you know when?  It’s confusing, to say the least.

Well, a few people might go for a balance between stability and spontaneity, but more perhaps will rely on “bahala na.” But this is just Cristina all over again. Well, that may be so, but what else is there? Bahala na indeed.

And thus the movie ends. Just as how it began: Cristina doesn’t know what she wants, only what she doesn’t, which is basically a philosophy of aimless wandering , of never figuring out what we really want, jumping from one relationship to the other, of being perpetually discontented but always on the move to ease the dissatisfaction.

Vicky will be living with a man she doesn’t really love. Juan Antonio will charm his way into more women’s hearts, and Maria Elena and Cristina will keep on looking.

It’s not the most reassuring and edifying of endings. But I suppose that’s just the way it is today. There are no more easy answers, but we don’t have a choice. We don’t even know what the answers will be, but we will still keep looking, just as Cristina will.



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