Woody Allen is a man of extreme controversy and his cinema is no different. With his name constantly in and out of the headlines, his familial issues and intricacies on display for the world to see, and his somewhat unconventional relationship with his adoptive daughter, the inner-workings of Allen’s mind make for some pretty interesting films.
Whilst his actions and opinions might not align with my own personal view points, I am a huge fan of his earlier works, namely ‘Annie Hall’ (1977), ‘Manhattan Murder Mystery’ (1993) and, more recently, ‘Whatever Works’ (2009). As time has progressed, Allen’s cinema seems to emit more and more taboo and unconventional ideologies, which gives the audience ample opportunity for analysis and speculation. With this in mind, on a rainy Sunday afternoon, I decided to indulge myself in one of Allen’s films that I hadn’t yet seen, ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ (2008). Being irrevocably in love with Spain and Iberian culture, as a Spanish speaker, and as a huge fan of Javier Bardem, particularly after seeing Aranoa’s ‘Los Lunes al Sol’ (2002), how could I not spend a Sunday afternoon in Barcelona with the likes of Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson?
I want to focus this article on the anti-feminist symbologies created by Allen in ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona,’ and make no mistake, there are plenty. Namely I aim to focus on the characterisation of the female protagonists and their storylines based on the presence of the male characters, namely Juan Antonio and Doug. Nevertheless, I don’t wish to critique the cinematography of the film. The warm filter that washes over every scene to transcend a hot, lazy day in mid-August Barcelona, the interjections of Spanish, particularly from Maria Elena to add that extra tinge of authenticity and the entanglement of three, even four protagonists to eventually form a love affair typical of romantic comedies from Hollywood. All the elements exist to make this film worthy of Saturday night viewing with your best friends, a glass of wine and a bowl of popcorn. However, these elements are superficial, and once you delve beneath the surface of these peripheral elements, Allen transcends a lot more than just Summer sun and sexual dalliances between an American tourist and a Spaniard.
To begin, and seemingly the first and most obvious cinematic technique that Allen employs which ultimately derails any feminist values or feminist theory being portrayed in the film, is his use of dialogue and narration. The way he uses these techniques construct rigid character types for the two female protagonists in the film, and Maria Elena (Cruz) when her character is introduced later on in the film, which are ultimately unbreakable and suggest the existence of these very characters depends only on the existence of male characters within the film.
Beginning with Vicky and Cristina, the narrator from the offset opens the dialogue for the rigid characters types to take their comfortable place within the plot.
Vicky is described as completing her Masters degree in Catalan Identity, a positive element to her character being that she is seemingly a well educated woman, right? Wrong. The narrator (Christopher Evan Welch) moves on to explain to the audience how Vicky ‘was grounded and realistic.’ Two respectable adjectives to describe her personality, however he explains how Vicky ‘had become engaged to Doug because he was decent and successful and understood the beauty of commitment.’ Thus Vicky is not grounded and realistic due to her academic ambitions nor the career they may lead to, but due to her choice in man, ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’’s first nod toward women’s character traits and elements of identity being dependent on a man. This is ultimately continued in the latter half of the film through the introduction of both Vicky’s fiancee and later husband Doug and her classmate who she decidedly goes out on a date with, both of which are intertwined with her grappling desire for Juan Antonio; her storyline only continues due to her involvement with the male characters which, arguably, is the only element of the plot line which delegates any substance at all to Vicky as a protagonist of the film.
On the other hand, Allen does not so much as attribute a Masters in the Arts to Cristina, in fact in attributes nothing more than her fixation on men and relationships. The narrator describes how Cristina had spent sixth months writing and directing a film about love, but dismisses this quickly in describing how she hated it in the end, and then informs the audience that she ‘had just broken up with yet another boyfriend and longed for a change of scenery.’ There isn’t much hope for our two female protagonists, right? Once again, Allen constructs a female character around the premise of men and relationships and ultimately, portrays Cristina as a hopeless romantic, and quite literally, hopeless: throughout the rest of the narrative, Cristina is flighty, unsure of herself and ultimately lacking in any depth that could drive the plot line forward.
Maria Elena presents a different character type, nevertheless still completely driven, arguably the most out of all three of the characters, by male presence. The first time the audience is introduced to Maria Elena is when Juan Antonio receives a call that she is in the hospital after harming herself, and when we eventually come face-to-face with her, she is erratic, emotional and arguably mentally unwell. Dialogue, as with the other two characters, becomes increasingly important in that the first things we hear Maria Elena discuss are the flaws in her relationship with Juan Antonio and the way in which he affected her. This frames Juan Antonio and their toxic relationship as perhaps being to blame for her poor mental wellbeing, and as Allen frames her, her craziness. Her crazy and erratic nature (Allen frames as being caused by Juan Antonio and their relationship), is what embodies Maria Elena and is arguably the only element of substance, as I keep referring to it, that Maria Elena has in the story. Thus, once more, a female character in Vicky Cristina Barcelona is portrayed as having a plot line dependent on the existence and actions of a man.
Secondly, a cinematic approach that Allen continues to use and manipulate throughout ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ is the strategic use of costume and framing in relation to the female characters. Once again sequencing Vicky, Cristina and Maria Elena, Allen continues to embody the women with their rigid character types through careful use of their clothing, the colours of said clothing and the framing of each female within shots predominantly with Juan Antonio.
Vicky, from the outset, wears clothing that could be considered stereotypically ‘sensible,’ arguably even modest. I quote the adjective of ‘sensible’ in inverted commas, because in what world should a woman’s choice of clothing depict her character type or level of value within a cinematic plot line? Unfortunately, as theorised by the likes of Stuart Hall and Roland Barthes, these are the codes and conventions that audiences are conditioned to respond to. Vicky’s covered shoulders and cargo pants/jeans rarely reveal much skin, in contrast to her counterpart Cristina (analysis of which I will delve into shortly), suggesting her mindset to be, as aforementioned, modest and could even suggest a nod toward her loyalty to Doug, though this is largely questioned in the latter of the film due to her dalliances with her classmate and Juan Antonio, also solidifying Allen’s use of the male characters to drive forward Vicky’s storyline. These connotations are further enforced in one particular scene, whereby Vicky is due to meet with Juan Antonio, and the audience observes her making her outfit choice, in the end opting for her usual cargo pants and a modest top. We’re in Oviedo/Barcelona in the Summer, right? Am I mistaken in thinking the heat during a Spanish Summer may leave a woman in cargo pants and shirt wishing to be in Antarctica instead? In all, these costume choices only reenforce the perception that Vicky embodies the respectable woman with only the utmost loyalty to her fiancee, and even her actions may deviate from this character type, the costume remains in place to give us, as an audience, the subtle reminder and reenforcement of this pre-established stereotype.
Cristina reinforces her predetermined character type through costume, too, however as we have already established earlier on, her character type differs a lot to that of Vicky’s. From the outset, Cristina is framed in shots wearing vests, exposing both her chest and her shoulders. You may be thinking, what is wrong with that? We’ve already established the setting of the film; a hot, Spanish summer, so why shouldn’t she wear a vest? Totally, I agree. Women can wear whatever they like, and dress weather appropriately, right? In the context of ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona,’ wrong. In a lot of mid-shots of Cristina, she exposes a lot more cleavage than Vicky, Allen arguably constructing his film in line with Laura Mulvey’s Male Gaze Theory which I will make heavier use of later on in this article (what would a feminist theory article in relation to film be without integrating Mulvey’s words of wisdom?). Could it be that Allen makes this costume choice in order to reinforce the flighty elements of Cristina’s character? He attributes not much else to her, which leaves the conscious audience questioning whether her more revealing of outfits is Allen’s attempt at attributing some depth of character to her or whether he is, in fact, constructing a character for the purpose of the Male Gaze. The contrast between Vicky and Cristina with regard to their costume is largely apparent in the scene whereby they first meet Juan Antonio – the restaurant scene. Cristina wears a khaki coloured vest top with exposed chest and shoulders, seductively sipping her wine, whilst Vicky wears her usual shirt and is the more pragmatic of the two when Juan Antonio approaches and states, ‘lets fly to Oviedo.’ Note the costume of Juan Antonio in this scene – his red shirt connoting both danger and passion, and pop of colour against the warm, neutral colours of both the restaurant itself and the girls’ costumes screaming out to the audience that this is the character that will drive forward the plot line.
Maria Elena holds some similarities to Cristina in Allen’s choice of costume, namely in the scene whereby Cristina takes photos of Maria Elena. She wears what seems to be a piece of underwear, similar to that of a babydoll, and like Cristina, shows a lot more skin than Vicky, supporting my previous suggestion that these characters feed into the Male Gaze. However, one particular scene that I’d like to focus on, which I believe embodies Maria Elena’s character and supports my earlier point that her character is based on crazy and erratic personality traits in relation to Juan Antonio and their relationship, is the scene in the garden when Maria Elena returns home. She wears a white gown, white connoting purity and innocence and perhaps even virginity, but the smudged mascara under her eyes, the cigarette in her hand and the conscious stream of abusive Spanish leaving her lips corrupts these connotations, representing the corruption that perhaps her relationship with Juan Antonio has had on her character. Once again, Allen uses costume and particularly colour of costume in this scene, to convey the link between the female personality and plot line and the male characters, in this case Juan Antonio.
Aaah, and then there is that plot element. The one we could not avoid addressing in this article, the plot element that seemingly appeared out of thin air – the relationship between Juan Antonio, Maria Elena and Cristina. Namely the scene in which Cristina and Maria Elena kiss, is the scene which seems to be the most problematic. I have argued that the storylines of the females in ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ is driven predominantly by the presence of males within the film, however I have also argued with respect to Cristina’s character specifically that she is perhaps constructed with the Male Gaze in mind, and Mulvey’s theory specifically becomes important when considering the kissing scene. There is no developed growth of a relationship per se, nor a logical reasoning as to why the two women decide to become intimate, be that with Juan Antonio involved or not, this scene and particular plot line seems to, as I have already said, come out of nowhere. Thus I would argue that the females, in this scene particularly, and their kiss are sexualised for the purpose of the Male Gaze, their kiss is sexualised and feeds into a male fascination with lesbianism. Perhaps this is a bold claim to make, yet not such a bold one when considering the prior construct of Cristina’s character in particular. Thus whilst it is argued that the plot line and the very existence of the female characters depend on the presence of men, the only scene that is not driven by Juan Antonio or otherwise said-male, is constructed through the lens of the Male Gaze. Perhaps the superficiality of this scene is further solidified in the latter whereby Cristina leaves their polyamorous relationship by stating that she is sure that this isn’t what she wants.
In all, I argue that without the existence of male characters in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, the female characters would have little value in driving any plot forward. Their characterisations are limited to relationships and feelings toward the opposite sex, and any possible achievement they may have or be working for (a Masters degree, producing a video), is either dismissed or portrayed as of lesser importance in comparison to their relationships with men. I’m sure there are critics that could argue that whilst the female protagonists storylines couldn’t progress without the presence of the male protagonist, the same could be said in reverse? You may be correct, what would be Juan Antonio’s plot line be without Maria Elena’s abusive rants and shooting of a gun, or Vicky and Cristina’s arrival in Barcelona, but the difference lies in his establishment of character – his art, his house, his ability to travel to Oviedo on his jet. Without him, the girls never would have made the trip and their summers would likely have passed without incident. So, in the case of ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona,’ this really is a man’s world.