Symbolism is a powerful tool. And, when used effectively, it can obviously add several layers of meaning to a film that mere plotlines and characters can't even dare to achieve. But when a film's characters are swallowed up by this symbolism, boxed in so they cannot escape its grasp, and are never allowed to move outside of these symbols and ideas they represent, the film can conversely suffer for only working on one level and never moving out of a preconceived set of notions and ideas.
This is the thin line that Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" treads. And it never quite seems to be able to toe it lightly. At face value, "Barcelona" is a funny, well written and sexy film that features some of the brightest young stars the world has to offer. While these elements all make it a perfectly enjoyable film to watch, the boxes Allen puts the characters in seem to stop the film from going anywhere beyond that.
The general plotline is fairly simple. Two American friends, Vicky and Cristina (Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson), decide to spend a summer together in Barcelona. Early on, and unbeknownst each other, they both fall for the same Spanish painter (Javier Bardem). And if this internal conflict wasn't enough, the external one comes barreling through when Bardem's volatile and medicated ex-wife (Penelope Cruz) returns to the picture.
The whole thing quickly devolves into a critique and exploration of romance, love and marriage (sort of like ... every other Woody Allen movie). And with this analysis comes the character clichés. This isn't to say that this automatically dooms the film by any means. Allen has constructed a career out of using characters and clichés to represent larger ideas. And he certainly uses the clichés in "Barcelona" to create a great deal of meaning. But that's only part of what makes Allen's films great. The other part is his unique and unpredictable characters whose emotions run so deep it nears being a fault.
But this is never achieved within the confines of "Barcelona." Cristina is the free-spirited romantic, the young beauty with the artistic soul who is willing to endure long bouts of pain to experience fleeting passion and who only truly knows what she doesn't want. Bardem plays the free-thinking abstract Spanish painter who is sexually liberated and seeks constant shallow pleasure because he feels life has no ultimate meaning. Cruz (whose angry, defiant Spanish-language quips steal the film) is the stunning, clever beauty with a soul which bears so much creativity it pains her and holds as much contempt for Bardem as fervent sexual desire, making them the sensuous but dangerously in love Bohemian couple with more fire than they know what to do with.
Vicky (Hall), Cristina's straitlaced, engaged friend who views love more as a sense of comfort and security than a product of passion, is the only one who even seems to momentarily break character. Her affair with Bardem represents the antithesis to everything she believed she wanted for her life. It shakes her whole foundation and makes her question everything she built her entire life around. But in time, everyone, even Hall, falls right back into their former places. Most of the characters show little to no change at all and Vicky seems simply resigned to her predestined fate in life.
There is plenty you can take away from this. There is no one right take on love. Ultimately, we can't escape ourselves. Penelope Cruz might be even sexier when she's bat-shit crazy. But it's hard not to think we were robbed of a potentially intricate and compelling plotline for the sake of these motifs.