Though I like to think of myself as something of a pop culture vulture, it’s taken me until now to watch Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
I think I avoided it for the same reason that most surgeons don’t time their DVRs each week for “Grey’s Anatomy”. They see enough blood and guts at work. They don’t want to spend their free time watching actors fake it with prosthetic livers and corn syrup blood. It must be exasperating for them to see Katherine Heigl refer to a ventricle when she’s actually pointing at an atrium.
That’s how I – a young American woman who went to Spain – felt while watching Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
If you haven’t seen it, the plot boils down to this: two young American women, Scarlett Johansson and Not Scarlett Johansson, go to Spain. It’s a wild new world with sexy accents. Things happen in dramatic fashion. The women soul search. Fin.
1. I am not a film critic. This is not a film review. A lot of professional critics (non-expats, I imagine) really liked this movie. If you’re interested in a non-biased critique of the movie, go here.
2. I love Woody Allen. Love him. Don’t be all, ‘You just don’t get his genius, man…’ with me, because I will shame you with my savant-like Woody Allen knowledge. I have a picture of him and Diane Keaton framed in my apartment. I can quote the first six minutes of Manhattan with ease. So when I say that I really did not like this movie, it hurts me more than it hurts you.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona felt like a bad student film to me, with a bothersome narrator and flat characters, but that’s not what this is about. It’s about the idea of portraying the female expat in celluloid – and why, probably, no matter how good or bad we think any movie that tries to do so is, it probably still would made me and my expat buddies cringe.
Javier Bardem, an actor that I enjoy tremendously, portrays Juan Antonio, the biggest cheeseball in Catalunya. He’s a tortured artist – of course – who says exquisitely corny things like, “Life is short. Life is dull. Life is full of pain. And this is a chance for something special,” when proposing a threesome with the women. The American Girls Abroad eat this up with a spoon, drunk on a heady mixture of wine and hot Spanish booty. Hey, what happens in Barna stays in Barna, but why do these films always imply that American guys can’t screw with gusto? Must we outsource it to swarthy strangers?
Scarlett Johansson plays Cristina, the needier, more sexually outgoing of the two women. She doesn’t know what to do with her life, career-wise or relationship-wise. She tries her hand at photography, taking photos of Barcelona’s iconic monuments. For a while she falls into bed with Juan Antonio and his dramatic, suicidal ex (Penélope Cruz).
Cristina waxes philosophical about how, after this lusty European experience, she can’t possibly go back to the States – land of artless capitalism and Budweiser. I have witnessed this particular strain of nouveau Euro-bourgeois. It’s not attractive.
Europe IS different from the States in many wonderful ways. The general consensus is that it’s more relaxed, more focused on enjoying life than just work, work, work – and that’s great. I love it too, obviously. But when Americans then denounce their homeland – when they act like there’s a bad smell in the room any time someone mentions McDonald’s or 4th of July barbecues, when they pretend that by hopping on a plane across the Atlantic that they’re now a new, more evolved person because they sit in cafés and smoke and drink tiny cups of coffee and discuss Kafka – it’s silly.
While everyone loves a change of scene and new adventures, it’s been my experience that Who You Are doesn’t fundamentally change once you hit European soil. You just have a fresh, new audience to show it to. Results vary.
Of course in the end, both Vicky and Cristina decide that Juan Antonio and Pé are bat-shit crazy. They simply don’t have enough structure in their passionate, artistic lives. The American Girls Abroad can’t live like this, so they hop on the next plane out of Barcelona to those glorious, capitalistic States.
This is the contrasting cliché to the former: that Americans can enjoy the ‘carefree’ Spanish lifestyle for a time – all the art admiring, the long lunches, and last but not least, that hot Spanish lovin’ – but when all is said and done, we find them silly and unable to function without a Wal-mart nearby. We prefer to look back wistfully at fading photos from our freewheeling stint in Spain than to create a blend of lifestyles here that works. We can’t reconcile both cultures, at least not in the movies.
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