The Unicorn Scale: Vicki Christina Barcelona

10/25/2018

Hola, lectoras de la Escala Unicorn! I hope you all are well and enjoying the fall!

Huh? What’s that? Why did I open with a greeting in Spanish? Well, that’s because I’m about to go to Spain! It has been on my bucket list for a long time – and what’s even better, my cousin lives in Barcelona, which means I get to visit family, too! I am one lucky gal.

Now when I plan to visit a new country, I like to watch films that are, if not from that country, then take place there. It’s kind of a cinematic preparation, and a fun distraction from trying to pack three weeks’ worth of clothes into a carry-on. (Yes, I’m ambitious.)

So I started brainstorming – what movies took place in Barcelona that were worth a revisit? Then the first one that cropped up in my brain was Vicki Christina Barcelona.  I remembered that Penelope Cruz got an Oscar for her performance as well. As I tried to recall its plot points, I remembered a lot of pretty people, and …. wait … there was definitely a bi character or two in there! So I thought we could all travel back to the sun-soaked city of the Woody Allen film together.

Before we all sit down for a Catalonian adventure together, I should remind new readers that this review contains SPOILERS – consider yourself warned. And if you are new to the scale and want to know what it’s all about, you can read all about it over at the original Unicorn Scale.

VCB opens with two best friends who impulsively head to Barcelona for a summer away, hosted in a villa by one of Vicki’s distant but affluent relatives. During their stay, the two girls are approached by a sexy painter, Juan Antionio (Javier Bardem) who gently and politely tells them he would love to take them away for a weekend to sleep with both of them. Because of their views on love, Vicki (Rebecca Hall) and Christina (Scarlett Johannson) have diametrically opposed reactions. But when they decide to join Juan Antonio for the lost weekend in Oviedo, it’s the appearance of Juan’s ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) that really throws everyone for a loop.

WHAT I LIKED:

I should preface this with saying I rarely like Woody Allen films. I can name maybe three out of his catalogue I enjoy – this is probably in part due to his personal history, but also the result of hyperbole – I’ve had too many Allen aficionados push his work on me, insisting that I would like it. Honestly, I don’t remember how I even saw Vicki Christina Barcelona in the first place. Maybe I was interested in seeing if the auteur would do anything different once he got out of Manhattan.

Still, I found myself enjoying this film more than I thought I would. A lot of that stems from the fact that it is an empirically attractive picture – the setting and cinematography are gorgeous, set in warm tones to set off both the stunning locations and beautiful actors in the foreground.

I ended up enjoying seeing Christina’s bi awakening – it seemed gentle, casual, and natural, and very much in character with her exploratory personality. Not only that, but for a time Christina, Maria Elena, and Juan Antonio seem to enjoy a successful polyamorous arrangement. There are even multiple scenes where Maria Elena and Christina express compersion at hearing the others’ lovemaking with Juan Antonio. It seems to be a loving, trusting poly relationship – one that of course puzzles Vicki and her uptight husband, but one where Christina seems content and enjoys the new dynamic.

The script even uses the term “bisexual” when Vicki’s husband (Chris Messina) asks about her newfound romances. Sadly, Christina brushes off the label, but this is also in character with her restless spirit, so at least it felt in character instead of the screenwriter shying away from the question.

The three characters in the relationship – Christina, Maria Elena, and Juan Antonio – have a decent amount of dimensions to them. Their dialogue is smart and sparkling, and they certainly have some personality to them. They are not wildly complex, but their interactions are passable.

WHAT I DIDN’T LIKE:

All that said, it’s hard for me to empathize with such affluent characters like Christina who fly to France “just to clear my head.” Sure, RyanAir is cheap, but she’s still a college student. Maybe this is a convention of this type of fantasy screenplay, but it irked me and took me out of the narrative at times.

Also, the relationship at the end of the day seemed to Christina to be another experiment in love. This does not bode well for displaying positive bi+ or poly relationships – no matter how hot the sex scenes are. To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with being a messy bi. When Christina breaks up with Maria Elena and Juan Antonio, it comes out of the blue – no discussion, no expression of doubts or talking through problems. This abruptness underlines Christina’s fickleness, but only adds more fodder to bi detractors.

In addition, Juan Antonio and Maria Elena lack much definition. Neither one has much of a sense of humor. Juan Antonio is too cool of a person to exist off the silver screen. And Maria Elena’s character comes across much of the time as just another fiery Hispanic lover with a wicked temper. These “feisty” stereotypes serve no one. Watching this again, I could see Cruz was doing everything she could to add colors to the character, but I was stumped on why she got the Oscar for the role. But I looked back and – and this is entirely my opinion – it felt like it was a “sorry, you should have gotten this Oscar last year but politics” win. (Cruz starred in Volver the year before and gave one of the performances of her career.) As a capable actress, she deserves better.

Finally, I find it irresponsible to assign a character who tried to kill herself to not seek or be taken to medical professional help – even if she supposedly has an aversion to it. It’s lazy writing and feels like romanticizing a person with emotional issues for the sake of a plot. Not a good idea to perpetuate.

THE RATING:

This is a very pretty film with very pretty actors and, for time, a good bi+ and poly dynamic that deserved better than the conventions of the script allowed it. What makes me even sadder is this is one of the few poly relationships I can even remember in recent cinema … at all. I hope that it will be seen less as an example and more of a starting point for future films.

Jennie Roberson
Jennie Roberson is a comedic actress and screenwriter currently living in Los Angeles. She just finished her first novel (a bi coming-of-age tale, naturally) and hopes to share it with the world soon. When she's not busy binging on Star Trek or dreaming of her future cat army, you can find her occasional thoughts between mountains of re-tweets at her Twitter handle, @JennieRoberson.