Woody Allen tackles the erratic nature of love in this 90 minute film set in the aesthetically wonderful Barcelona.
When we are first introduced to Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), Allen wastes no time in discerning an obvious distinction between the two. The former is an academic studying Catalan identity and the latter a self-labelled failed artist. This contrast in character comes to the fore when the two encounter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), a character whose life philosophy and prepossessing features appear intimidatingly unconventional to the women. The dissimilarity is hugely important in the film as it displays the nature of love and that a relationship shouldn’t be dictated by just how similar two people are.
Indeed, Allen quickly addresses this as Juan Antonio’s much talked about ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), re-enters his life just as he gets closer with Vicky and Cristina. Maria Elena is established as an artistic inspiration and genius by Juan Antonio, clearly the highest form of aesthetic intellect in the film and especially within the complex love-square constructed by Allen. The effect of jumping from a love triangle to a love square can be likened to the Western genre’s evolution from a two man stand-off to a three-man stand off – it adds a whole new dimension to the matrix and all conceived notions and ideas about the former structure must be revised. Of course, in Allen’s film this love-square is used to depict both circumstance and the nature of love and life – two things that are hugely in the fore in many of his films. As well as this, the square evidently creates a grand deal of tension and awkwardness for not only the characters but for the viewer as well.
Before discussing the connotations of the square, the triangle of Maria Elena, Cristina, and Juan Antonio must first be analysed. Just as Allen revised the idea of a love triangle he has also reinvented the conventional relationship or ‘couple’ by ushering in polyamory, a consensual relationship between three or more people. Though Cristina is initially intimidated by Maria Elena’s radical style of living, the two become very close to the point where they engage in sexual relations. By doing so, they’ve established an equilibrium between the trio and, as the narrator describes, ‘there was an atmosphere of peace and harmony around the house’. Interestingly, they reached such a state by balancing three very different personalties; Maria Elena, who has reached the highest form of artistic and spiritual enlightenment and who therefore establishes herself as the superior, Juan Antonio who draws inspiration for his work from Maria Elena as well as idolising her but at the same time finds Cristina to be ambitious and beautiful, in other words torn and ergo the medial element, and finally Cristina the inferior component who is out of sync with the other two in terms of language and artistic intellect. Even though Cristina and Maria Elena are seemingly binary opposites, physically and vocationally, Juan Antonio’s involvement casts their differences aside. This nearly systematic approach to love, life, and nature is seen in von Trier’s Nymphomaniac and his keen usage of the Fibonacci sequence and its presence behind everything that occurs in the world.
This theory is further supported when Cristina decides to leave the trio, leaving the remaining two lovers to argue and quarrel as the balance is now askew. An integral quote of the film comes from Maria Elena as she denotes that ‘the truest love is romantic because it’s imperfect’. From this we can infer that Maria Elena and Juan Antonio were ‘too in love’ (if such a thing exists), they were so unconditionally lost in one another it resulted in violence and contempt. This is where Vicky comes in. The relationship between her and Juan Antonio comes closest to the conventional couple seen in cinema, and, after counting, Allen includes around 9 different couples or affiliations throughout the film, making Vicky and Juan Antonio’s heavily romanticised and important. Of course, Allen throws up the hurdle of circumstance that infringes the law of cinema (a happily ever after kiss) with a manic Maria Elena interrupting the destined embrace Vicky and Juan Antonio’s lips, and herein lies the true tragedy and meaning behind the film: through either nature or circumstance love can be cut short and cease to flourish.
The practical side of the film proved to give it a very classy and refined look, from the sultry yellow hues used to filter the film, to the authentic Spanish guitar score that zigs and zags between melancholic and chirpy tunes. Allen’s use of long takes coupled with his uniquely realistic dialogue creates an unparalleled sense of naturalistic living. Finally, his choice of Barcelona transcends it being only a backdrop but it is characterised through its art and its culture. As the characters look upon the modern works of abstract art and are able to dig out a meaning for themselves, it’s evident that Allen wants us to ponder what degree we really perceive and understand art, but also to what degree we really perceive and understand love.
Though cryptic and at times narratively frenetic, the film has stunning composition and a complex plot that engages the viewer. And a quote that no doubt relates to the film from Woody Allen himself – ‘The heart wants what it wants.’