In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, a bunch of characters break out of a cycle only to return to it like nothing happened.
Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) are two American tourists who arrive in Barcelona for a two month stay. Vicky is set to be married to Doug (Chris Messina), and she proves to be much more closed off than Cristina, who follows her impulses.
They meet a seductive painter named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem), and he brings them to Oviedo for a weekend. Cristina has to drag Vicky along for the ride, but when Cristina gets food poisoning, Vicky and Juan Antonio spend time together, ultimately sleeping with each other.
Once they return to Barcelona, Juan Antonio pursues a romance with Cristina, knowing that his night with Vicky was a one time thing. Vicky, on the other hand, can’t get Juan Antonio off her mind. When Doug arrives, he only highlights the differences between himself and Juan Antonio as well as the limits of the life she has planned out for herself. That life includes Wall Street money, high definition tvs and laptops, among other things. It all begins to feel a little stale and formulaic, yet Vicky can’t push herself to break free of the relationship. She and Doug marry in a small ceremony there in Barcelona.
Meanwhile, Juan Antonio and Cristina begin to live together, but then his ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) shows up, fresh off a suicide attempt. This initially throws a wrench in Juan and Cristina’s relationship, but pretty quickly they begin to develop a polyamorous relationship which helps Cristina find her voice as a photographer.
Then, with the summer drawing to a close, Cristina gets the impulse to move on, always searching for something new. When she leaves the relationship, Juan Antonio and Maria Elena fall back into old, violent yet passionate ways, and Maria Elena moves out.
In the final sequence of the film, Vicky’s friend Judy (Patricia Clarkson), with whom they’ve stayed with in Barcelona, encourages Vicky to pursue Juan Antonio while she still has the chance. Judy is married to Mark (Kevin Dunn), yet she admits to not being in love with him while also knowing she’ll never leave him. So she just channels all this energy into Vicky.
Vicky spends an afternoon with Juan Antonio, but it’s cut short when Maria Elena shows up with a gun, trying to kill Juan Antonio, though it’s probably more of a call for attention than a real threat. After all, Maria Elena did previously stab Juan Antonio. The violence is just presented as part of their passion.
In the end Vicky never tells Doug about her night with Juan Antonio, Judy stays with Mark and Cristina continues her long search for whatever it is she needs, only convinced so far of what she doesn’t want.
Doug seems like a nice guy. Chris Messina’s a good actor, and he usually plays charismatic actors. In Vicky Cristina Barcelona, however, he only serves as the counterpoint of everything Juan Antonio represents. Doug even critiques Cristina’s way of living, showing how closed-minded he is. We see him in the city, drinking coffee, talking about getting a large house with a pool and a tennis court, talking to a friend about the Mets and plasma tv screens. This is all to show us how restrained he is, yet he seems like a good guy. Maybe that’s why Vicky doesn’t leave him. The Vicky we see in Barcelona and in the film is probably not the same Vicky back home, once she’s in a routine and goes to work every day.
For example, I like having something to do. I enjoy my drive to work, listening to NBA podcasts, taking that first sip of an often-overpriced latte, surfing the internet (to an extent), writing when I can, going for a run, watching movies. It’s nice, and sometimes it feels a little limiting if I do it too much. That’s what the weekend is for, to force you to have a different routine or no routine at all. But if the weekend is too long or a vacation is too long, I start to go a little insane. It’s more of a controlled insanity, but the lack of structure means my thoughts wander, and that can lead anywhere.
In the movie, Vicky is nothing like Juan Antonio. Sure, opposites may attract, but Juan Antonio even tells her that after a month or two they’d be at each other’s throats. Juan Antonio seems to match up more with Cristina, as he himself observes, but even Cristina is floating around, undefined by a lack of structure.
Some people prefer a lack of structure like that, but I think structure is important. There’s probably a middle ground between Doug and Juan Antonio, but in the movie Doug sucks and his friends suck. They’re all boring and imperceptive.
There should be a sequel called Vicky Cristina Doug Juan Antonio Chicago where they all spend the holidays together in the windy city. On one hand Juan Antonio might venture around the city with confidence, seducing women and taking in art. On the other hand I could see him getting lost, looking at a map, not understanding the public transportation system and being miserable.
This movie is about people out of their element, going into someone else’s element, becoming seduced, then thinking maybe that element is permanent. Every time someone comes back from vacation they say they want to live there. I kind of want to think Vicky was clear-headed at the end and realized it would be a mistake to drop everything for Juan Antonio, and she does kind of realize that, yet she still doesn’t seem happy with Doug, and that makes me sad.
Even though Cristina still doesn’t know what she wants, she seems a little more confident while Vicky is shaken. We also get a shot of Judy and Mark walking along a dock to their expensive boat, yet Judy looks miserable. That’s probably what Vicky and Doug will become as the years pass, and, again, that makes me sad. It’s sad because I think Vicky is misled by Juan Antonio’s seduction, and she’s convinced she feels something that she doesn’t feel, but because she puts so much weight on what she thinks she feels, it will eat away at her over time. Fortunately there’s a lot of empty space in the giant house she and Doug will share for her to hide and suppress those feelings.