Is “Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona” referring to an emasculation of (elite) American society?
March 21, 2009 — drsubrotoroy
In Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona the three American men, and especially the seemingly insufferable Doug, are drawn in stark contrast to the two or three Spaniards. Woody Allen often writes his movies too and has apparently written this one, so the lengthy monologues that might be emerging from a character and seem to be spoken by a Johannson or Hall here might just as easily have been spoken by Allen himself in an appearance in one of his previous movies.
But not in case of the WASP-men. What is Doug made to talk about throughout? Domestic nesting behaviour, shopping, how to please parents and society: all conventionally, stereotypically, feminine, not masculine, subjects of conversation. His fellow male WASPs are no better. The most that comes out by way of masculinity is talk of a little sports or a little gadgetry. That’s it. On balance, the WASP-men in Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona are made to come across as effete hedonistic characters – though ones holding elite expensive jobs.
Contrast that with Juan Antonio and his father who can talk about or enact nothing but creative deeds whether painting in case of the son or poetry in case of the father or making love to women in case of both.
Of course this is fantasy and there is dramatic license being taken here because creative artists possessing the kind of masculine integrity these two men portray tend in reality to be hungry and impecunious and angry and unkempt, not living in marvelous clean mansions that attract the Marie-Elenas of the world to their beds. If they had inherited wealth they might have tended to squander it rather than find artistic genius and good taste, not merely in one generation but over two.
Furthermore, the integrity is all a bit far-fetched – Antonio is uncouth enough to propose to Vicky she jeopardize her engagement by making love in a threesome as a last fling in a bachelor-party before getting married, yet the same character later proclaims he is not someone to come between husband and wife (having already been with the wife). The threesome he instantly proposes to Vicky and Cristina, who are strangers to him, is entirely vacuous in comparison to the threesome he ends up being in with Cristina and Marie-Elena; in the former, he is almost a cheap tour-guide who wants to get paid in kind for an interesting day of tourism, something Vicky naturally resists. Besides, his paintings do look unexceptional, which allows an alternative interpretation that perhaps father and son are merely two rich lonely wasteful men imagining themselves to be leading the artistic life.
The four American women also come off as pallid in comparison to the central dominating character of Marie-Elena – a point made most bluntly when Cristina fetches the aspirin for Antonio only to find Marie-Elena administering him a neck-massage instead. Cristina has at most a talent at photography, Marie-Elena is a genius at whatever she touches.
Even the silent Spaniard kissing Judy is portrayed doing more by way of masculinity than any of the WASP-men. Doug with his laptop and his well-gymed body in shorts epitomizes Ivy League undergraduate success while remaining clueless about human nature or the outside world. He is a modern American Karenin, and the theme we are left with of Vicky being besotted with her dashing Spaniard even while starting the dullest and most tedious married life with Doug, would, as it were, become Anna Karenina except she has yet to dutifully bear Doug and his family a child.
In fact it is the absence of such a child that makes the movie possible – if Vicky had instead visited Barcelona after she and Doug were married and had a child or two with them, would she have spared a second glance at the dashing Spaniard, no matter how boring and tedious Doug turned out to be? The great lacuna in Woody Allen’s great oeuvre thus far may be his inability to depict anything but adult conversations – has he ever managed to describe families with children seriously?
FR Leavis once suggested that DH Lawrence may have failed to grasp Anna Karenina, perhaps the greatest novel ever written, for supposing Anna and Vronsky could survive on love alone. Woody Allen may have failed similarly in his much smaller-scale characterization of the Antonio-Vicky-Doug triangle. Does he have the patience to read Leavis’s masterly essay, I wonder, besides the novel itself? A Woody Allen production of Anna Karenina – now wouldn’t that be something else?