Henry James Barcelona

June 24, 2009 at 11:10 pm | In arts, fashionable_life, ideas, writing | 4 Comments

I watched Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona recently. It was enjoyable and fun to watch – to a point. It had all the classic hallmarks of a Woody Allen story, as it revolved around the American (and now also European) upper-middle-class set – which made it watchable, but also made it annoying.

The acting was good – I thought Penélope Cruz was utterly enthralling, a delight to watch and impossible to anticipate – and the story was actually quite interesting. And the settings were gorgeous.

In fact, the settings were gorgeous to the point that I lost my ability to willingly suspend disbelief.

Where, in all that luxury and ease, was there any friction or resistance – any real life? Two young women go off to Europe – specifically, Barcelona – for a summer lark. Sure, it’s credible that two women like this could both be available at the same time to do this together, although my ex-academic mind was already calculating Vicky’s age – she’s doing a Master’s Thesis on Catalan culture, hm, she must be reaching her mid-20s?, and her friend Cristina is from her old college (pre-grad school) days, so presumably they’re the same age, in other words, they are two women around 23, 24, 25 years old who both happen to have time – and resources (that is: money) – to travel together for the whole summer? No boring jobs to pay the rent or pay back student loans?

Right there, zing!, one of the threads holding up the suspension of disbelief starts to fray.

But the rest get shredded even more quickly. Consider that Vicky happens to have American relatives in Barcelona who can house the two “girls” for the duration – and that this isn’t just any house, but an estate. Consider that the mansion’s owners are two ultra-conventional people who don’t seem to evince the slightest talent that would indicate how they came to live this life of luxury in good old Espagna.

Now, if that were my only complaint, one could say that I’m just envious of the rich. But my objections go deeper – to the absence of friction and resistance.

There are no servants or gardeners to be seen, nor any trace of their existence. Does the American housewife who presides over the manse do all her own housekeeping? Unlikely.

Wait, there’s more.

The house is up on a hill, buccolic setting – and yet there’s never any difficulty in reaching the city center for restaurant hopping or an evening out. Country paths for bicycling, fields for picknicking, berry brambles for foraging: all instantly accessible, as easily reached as the downtown core and its exciting nightlife. From an urbanist perspective, this aspect of the fairytale was staggeringly surreal: it seems that in Woody Allen’s Barcelona, there is no congestion, there are no hassles in getting taxis (they just …appear!), everyone happily drives even after drinking the equivalent of a case of wine, and no one is ever stuck in traffic jams.  The space-time-continuum is collapsed: there is no energy lost in moving between the fantasy worlds of city and country …presumably because they’re both just that, fantasy.

No one works in Barcelona! Everyone either parties or gossips or ponders soulfully the meaning of life.

It’s all Old World charm and authenticity in Woody Allen’s Barcelona, and you know, deep, in a deeply un-American way, what with all those Europeans. And yet technology works seamlessly and without any friction or hassle. For example, American tourists have no problems with their American cellphones, which magically just work. Nor do they have any issues with paying for what must amount to staggering roaming charges – even though they’re currently unemployed travelers. Vicky is constantly receiving calls from her fiance in New York, nor does she hesitate to call him – actually, as soon as she and Cristina arrive in Barcelona and get a taxi, she pulls our her phone and calls him.

I know there are ways of getting around the mobile carrier issue in Europe, but it all invariably involves at least a bit of hassle. Not in the movies, though. Maybe the girls all had Skype enabled on their phones, and that’s why they could afford such liberal long distance use. But then again…

In Woody Allen’s Barcelona, artists aren’t starving, they’re boho-rich. In fact, our hero (Juan Antonio) isn’t just rich – he’s rich enough to drive a spiffy red sports car, pilot a borrowed plane (and have rich friends who have planes to pilot), live on a hill (living on hills seems to be important if you’re an important character in this movie), be able to support his penniless – but wildly gifted – ex-wife (Maria Elena, played by Penélope Cruz) and support his new mistress (Cristina), set Cristina up with a darkroom and all the papers and chemicals and lights and cameras necessary to practice her new-found art/hobby (not to mention that the darkroom appears to be installed in a single afternoon …gee, I wish I could get my home improvement projects done on that kind of schedule), dine out endlessly in attractive bodegas, and…

…And, as if that weren’t enough for one single inexplicably wealthy artist-painter: in addition he has a poor widowed papa who’s also an artist, who also lives on a hill in an immaculate and beautiful house (which also is bereft of groundskeepers or servants even though it’s a stretch to think that the old man could keep it up all by himself). And, this is the coup de grace, the father is a poet who writes the world’s most beautiful and moving poetry, which he then withholds from the world because of his lofty disdain for mankind. Na-na-na-boo-boo, as the kids might say.

As I said above: no friction, no resistance. Woody Allen gives a whole new dimension to the concept of “life of leisure” and “life of ease.”

Naturally, these people have to create inner dramas and turmoil for themselves, otherwise their upper-middle-class existence would become unbearable – as it does for the wife in the transplanted American couple with whom Vicky and Cristina set out to stay for the summer.

The fear of losing all that lucre keeps them mired in pretend affairs. I say pretend affairs because Cristina’s shallow desertion of Juan Antonio at the end of the film shows how artificial her interests in him were. She returns to the US with Vicky so she can continue to nurse her neurotic search for meaning and life’s “gifts.”  Vicky meanwhile resigns herself to marrying the idiot fiance so she can age into a desiccated replica of her relative, the expat American housewife in Barcelona.

I realize it sounds like I hated this film. I did and I didn’t. I enjoyed watching it – there’s so much eye-candy, so many beautiful people, gorgeous scenes, tantalizing situations. But it was actually the eye-candy that made me despise it, too: for me, it took away from the story, cheapening it instead of enriching it.

I came away from the experience of watching it as I do from trying to read Henry James‘s work. There’s something so arty and precious in James’s language that I literally fall asleep to save my sanity. Yes, it’s true: I’m a philistine, I cannot – literally cannot – read Henry James. (In fact, when I tried to watch a movie version of The Wings of the Dove, I promptly fell asleep there, too.) Granted, Vicky Cristina Barcelona didn’t put me to sleep, but give it a few years to reach the art status of James, and some day it, too, will reach that pinnacle. Revered, Allen’s obsessive focus on the (usually American) upper middle class, will be an object of adoration for many (and Vicky Cristina Barcelona its apogee), even as it puts some of us into snooze mode.


  1. You’re probably over-rating it by giving it the ‘Henry James’ tag.

    I saw this movie on a plane – so that must’ve been in January. The airline brochure didn’t mention Woody Allen (or I’d never have bothered to watch it!), so I took it to be just one of those Hollywood romantic comedy things. I enjoyed it, but your description doesn’t ring too many bells. In other words it was pretty forgettable light entertainment.

    Now that I know it, I’m not surprised that Allen was the director.

    Comment by melanie — June 25, 2009 #

  2. Great to hear from you again, Melanie. Ah yes, the ‘Henry James’ tag is there to engage or piss people off, both James’s defenders and Allen’s. It sounds like you’re not a fan of Woody Allen’s films – I do like quite a few of them, just for their high fantasy content (eg., “Annie Hall,” where the main character can support herself in a NY apartment of her own through freelance writing and creating “bovies” – books based on movies: AS IF, eh?).

    Comment by Yule — June 25, 2009 #

  3. Annie Hall was the last Woody Allen movie that I liked. I did like it a lot!

    Comment by melanie — June 27, 2009 #

  4. Diane Keaton is a charmer – she made the movie. I remember seeing it with friends back in the very very early 80s (1980, I think), and as we were all Marxists, my friends roundly disparaged the movie. Have to admit that the idea of being able to survive in Manhattan writing “bovies” (books based on movies) was a fantasy, but fun… 😉

    Comment by Yule — June 27, 2009 #

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