Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Woody Allen's Vicky Christina Barcelona as a fable of stability

I've never really seen any classic Woody Allen. There's a specific reason for that: given what I've heard of the director, and the few clips of his movies that I've seen, I felt like I'd already gotten the point. Woody Allen is a neurotic, effete New York intellectual who spends his movies meditating on love's confusions, usually in the form of an autobiographical monologue and a few anecdotal incidents. This is a fair project for an artist with a vision, but it's not something I feel the need to attend to.

Even so, I caught Match Point not too long ago, and I definitely enjoyed it. Woody Allen really knows the aesthetic he's working with, and he knows the subtlety of intimacy and attachment. The touch of crime drama, with its uncertainty and suspense, was enough to keep me engaged in the narrative. I've recently seen Vicky Christina Barcelona, and I have a sense that I've experienced all that stuff I was missing.

Vicky Christina Barcelona is a film about a pair of friends who spend a summer in Barcelona, exploring and negotiating their very different approaches to romance. The two title characters, and all the characters they encounter, are molded to fairly common stereotypes, and this may be one of the first weaknesses of the film. Vicky is the stable skeptic, prudent and attached, and Christina is the fickle lover, obsessed with her freedom and her self-image. These two may both fit archetypal roles, but at the very least, their archetypes are explored in the course of the film.

Vicky and Christina's counterparts... the latin lovers Juan Antonio and Maria Elena... are carved from pure stereotype. They're the idealized, romanticized Spaniards, poetic and sensitive, confident, artistically gifted and sexually free. They come across as basically flawless, though in two very different ways. Was Woody Allen conscious of his lack of subtlety? Was he using them as icons of an American stereotype, instead of trying to develop them as characters?

I guess, in terms of the story, there's actually something to this role-affirming characterization. Like so many films, Vicky Christina Barcelona is about personalities striving to evolve and individuals trying to transgress their own limits. Like Shrek trying to break out of his cynicism, or Harold Crick struggling to break free of his predetermined lifestyle, Vicky and Christina are both facing the possibility of breaking through their own limits. Vicky finds her commitment shaken by a new infatuation, and Christina finds herself in a romantic situation that might convince her to finally settle down.

The difference between Shrek and Stranger Than Fiction, referenced above, and Vicky Christina Barcelona, is that in the latter, these transgressions fail miserably. Essentially, this film is about two identities that are challenged, but ultimately confirmed by those challenges. The latin couple's erotic allure almost overturns both Vicky's and Christina's self-appointed roles, but ultimately, they're too volatile for Vicky and too stable for Christina. The two protagonists finally return to themselves and go on living their self-images. Presumably, these roles are enough for them, and both go on to live happily.

You may have noticed that at the end of Vicky Christina Barcelona, nothing has changed. Nobody has gone through a great self-discovery, except to reaffirm their previous decisions, and nobody's life has drastically changed course. Vicky's relationship with the lovable Doug is saved, and even the capricious Christina seems stable in her transience. Juan Antonio and Maria Elena are still the same violent, creative couple, vascillating between love and hate, but we never expected them to change in the first place... they were just a sounding-board for the identities of the other two characters.

Anthony Burgess actually commented on this in his introduction to A Clockwork Orange, wherein he explained the significance of his final chapter: "When a fictional work fails to show change, when it merely indicates that human character is set, stony, unregenerable, then you are out of the field of the novel and into that of the fable or allegory." In this sense, then, Vicky Christina Barcelona is a fable, rather than a "novel" (still comparing it to literature). This makes it an interesting exercise, but perhaps less interesting as a film... a fable of romantic and sexual self-affirmation, where we may find the characters compelling, but where the opening monologue tells us all we need to know about them.