Vicky Cristina Barcelona begins with the relaxed Latinized beat of Spanish music unfolding as the titles are screened, perfectly capturing the laissez faire sexual tone that is one of the key themes of this film. The plot is based on the love adventures of college friends Vicky and Cristina, two Americans traveling in Spain.
The most intriguing character in the film is not the character of the artist Juan Antonio, played by Javier Berdem, but his divorcee, Maria Elena, played by Penelope Cruz. Maria Elena personifies the genius artist with a bipolar personality. Her swings are radical -- from being jealous and suspicious of the motives of Cristina, her ex-husband’s new lover, played by Scarlet Johansson -- to being part of an almost contented trio, helping Cristina to achieve her own artistic goals, and even being genuinely happy to hear Cristina and her ex-husband making love in the next room while she sleeps alone in the guest room.
Maria Elena’s shifts obviously externally portray the conflicts that she has within herself about how she relates to her ex. More significantly, perhaps, they also indicate the shifts which both Cristina, the ex-husband, and the film’s audience undergo in their constantly changing interpretations of her. Allen has also managed a sleight of hand here -- through subtle changes in her behavior, clothing, dialogue and scene and narrative throughout the film, he has also demonstrated perfectly how any given person is continuously reinterpreting their perspective on the same person, one of the key complexities of loving relationships.
While the casual testing of boundaries was maintained throughout the entire film, the final blow of the gunshot on Vicky’s hand brings her tolerance to a screeching halt. Now, Vicky at last knows what she doesn’t want, and realizes that she is unwilling to adopt the cavalier attitude that she longingly observed on Cristina through the entire trip. Faced with an obvious injury, Vicky quickly pulls back and finds a way to end her own explorations.
The film successfully explores the fleeting nature of satisfaction, as well as the difficulties of synchronizing the desires of the individuals who are involved in any relationship. All the while, the narrator speaks to the questioning audience, who are assumed to be searching for some footing within the laid back atmosphere and sudden shifts that appear throughout the story. Ultimately, this film strikes an admirable balance, making it a fitting tribute to the complexity of love: despite a forcefully one-sided ending, it does not allow much in the way of definitive conclusions or moralistic grounding throughout all the exploration it portrays.