‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ Challenges Our Views on Love and Romance

Vicky Cristina Barcelona movie poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This review was written back in 2008.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is easily the best Woody Allen movie I have seen in a long time. There is no shaky camera work to induce nausea here, and the story is never boring for one second. There is also none of those Woody Allen-isms we are all so tired of, probably because Allen himself chose not to act in this movie. Instead, he gives us a great cast of actors to bring his material to life, and he sets his story in the beautiful country of Spain. With cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe, he makes the different areas of Spain so inviting to where you just want to jump on a plane and fly over there right now. If only plane tickets weren’t so damn expensive. Oh yeah, I have a job too. Damn!

The movie starts off by introducing us to Vicky (Rebecca Hall), a graduate student who is engaged to be married, and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson), a woman who just filmed a short feature and recently broke up with her boyfriend. They are best friends who take a vacation to Spain, and they agree on just about everything except when it comes to love. Whereas Vicky is reserved in the ways of love, Cristina is impulsive and spontaneous. While Vicky seems sure of what she wants, Cristina is unsure of what she wants from a lover or from life. The ways of these two women are put to test when they meet Spanish artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem). Juan casually comes up to them while at a restaurant and offers to take the two to Oviedo in the next hour where he says they will have great fun, drink fine wine and eventually make love. Cristina is all for going, but Vicky wants nothing of it due to her impending marriage. But of course, she goes to keep Cristina company. What happens from there will or will not change the way they feel about love in general.

Into this mix comes Juan Antonio’s ex-wife, Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz), who wishes she knew how to quit her ex-husband. Maria comes back into Juan’s life after Cristina has moved in with him, and she is unstable to say the least. From there, who knows what will happen. This is what I really liked about the “Vicky Cristina Barcelona;” It was very absorbing, and I had no idea what was going to happen next. I can’t say this about most movies I see these days.

Like I said, the cast is superb. I wish I had the power over women Bardem has over the female characters here. This is quite a switch from his Academy Award winning role as Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men,” and this movie affords him a better haircut as well. Bardem succeeds in showing you how passionate his character is, and how unfulfilled his passion is.

Scarlett Johansson, Allen’s muse at the moment judging from the number of movies they have done together so far, is excellent as usual. Johansson plays an adventurous person who throws caution to the wind, but the actress also allows us to see the vulnerable side of Cristina which reveals her to be insecure as she has no idea of what she really wants out of life.

The most underrated performance of this movie, however, belongs to Rebecca Hall, whose dalliance with Juan Antonio creates conflicted feelings within her character which come across so clearly without her saying a word. Hall’s face does a lot of the acting for her while her words betray what Vicky thinks about what her heart truly desires. She has a loving fiancée, but he is nowhere as romantic as Juan. Of course, who would be? One important lesson for prospective husbands to be; make sure your fiancés don’t meet up with any Spanish men because you will never be able to compete with them. This will especially be the case if you are a banker.

But leave it to the Spanish actors to steal this movie away from everyone else. We already talked about how great Bardem is, but let’s talk about the passionate fireball that is Penelope Cruz. For years, she was stuck in American movies which dealt more with her looks more than her talent. Plus, she was constantly being accused of messing up relationships with married movie stars which was unfair to say the least. Ever since abandoning those movies, her talent has shined brightly in acclaimed films like “Volver.” Cruz is an uncontainable force in this movie, and she takes her characters from highs and lows which feel very believable and never overdone. The relationship between her and Bardem in this movie is easily the most complicated and most infuriating for them both. As Juan correctly points out, “We are meant for each other, and we are not meant for each other.”

The theme of the movie is love and what it does to us when we go after it, and of what it does to us after we think we have it. The one thing these characters have in common is the search for true love feels like a never-ending journey for them, and that’s even if you are with the person you love. It’s a beast which seems far more likely to hurt people instead of making them happy. There are a lot of thoughts here on love which makes “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” one of the more thought-provoking movies I have seen so far in 2008. There is a lot of comedy to be found here, but the movie is mostly a sad story of how love seems to be just out of our grasp. Even if you have the love you need in life, there is always something missing.

What I really loved about the comedy here is how none of the actors ever try to play the joke or attempt to be funny. The humor comes out of the absurd way the characters interact with each other. There is a brilliant moment where Maria tells Cristina how she had to go through her suitcase because she didn’t trust Cristina and that she wanted to know more about who is making out with her ex-husband. The scene is played in all seriousness, even when Cruz talks about how she has thoughts of killing Johansson, and it is hysterical.

“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is a very unusual Woody Allen movie. While it deals with themes which are very familiar to ones he has dealt with in the past, it does not feel like your typical Woody Allen movie. That is a major plus because most of his movies have an overwhelming feeling of familiarity which threatens to take away from the proceedings. But by putting his thematic material in another country with a terrific cast, this is one of those movies which reminds you Allen can still pull off a great movie worth seeing. For once, I am eager to see what he will do next. He’ll probably go through the regular ups and downs, but he has clearly learned some hard lessons from the movies he did back in the 1990’s.

* * * * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Karl Glusman about Gaspar Noe’s ‘Love 3D’

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As many will expect, Gaspar Noe’s film “Love” is full of nudity and sex, much of it unsimulated. However, it is also his most personal film as he explores the power love can have over people and how it can be mesmerizing and yet so painful at the same time. Karl Glusman stars as Murphy, a young film student who is in a deeply romantic and sexual relationship with Electra (Aomi Muyock). Then one day they invite another young woman, Omi (Klara Kristin), to their bed to fulfill a sexual fantasy, and soon after everything falls apart. Murphy ends up having sex with Omi which leads to an unplanned pregnancy, and Electra ends their relationship as a result. In the process of trying to get her back, Murphy reflects on the highs and lows of his time with Electra as he sinks into a deep depression.

I got to talk with Glusman over the phone about what it was like to work on “Love.” It marks his debut in a live-action film, and he has since been cast in Nicolas Winding Refn’s “The Neon Demon” and Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals.” Many have asked Glusman about what it was like to be fully naked throughout “Love,” but I was more interested in finding out what it was like for him to give such an emotionally naked performance. He also described in detail the way Noe makes his movies, and he shared his experience of working with Refn on “The Neon Demon.”

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Ben Kenber: “Love” is a very hypnotic movie as most Gaspar Noe movies are. The thing I admired most about your performance is how it is more emotionally naked than physically naked, and that’s something I hope people will realize when they watch it. Just how emotionally taxing was the role of Murphy for you?

Karl Glusman: You are the first person to ask me that because the focus is always kind of on the flesh. It was tough. Gaspar liked to surprise us a lot. He wouldn’t tell us what we were going to shoot the day we were shooting. He would kind of put us into position and let us run for 45 minutes at a time and then change the cameras around. There would be screaming at each other and spitting on each other. In Paris I was alone and I didn’t really know anybody, and I don’t really speak very good French at all. I could understand a little more by the end than when we started shooting, but when you are doing stuff like this you become part of a smaller group of people that really understands the work you are doing. It’s hard to talk to friends back home about it because they don’t really know what you’re going through. You feel a little isolated. It’s hard to talk to people about it when they have no concept of what you’re doing. There were definitely times where I felt kind of crazy. I felt like Gaspar was really having a laugh like he was sort of manic and he’s like the master manipulator. I had a nightmare before I went over to France and before he even hired me. In my dream I was in sort of a spherical compartment. The walls were lined with cameras from every angle, and I was being shaken and tossed around. That sort of in a nutshell was what the experience was like at times because he really asked a lot of his actors. He wanted you to cry, he wanted you to strip down naked, he wanted you to scream and spit on each other, and he tried to charm you constantly and get you to fall in love with each other and didn’t really allow you to prepare for it because there is no script. How do you prepare for something like that? You kind of just have to take a breath and jump off a cliff and hope that the parachute is going to open at some point.

BK: I read that you and the actresses didn’t have any dialogue to work with. How would you go about preparing to do a scene with Gaspar?

KG: I’ll take you through one day of shooting. Without giving any of the plot away, there was one day where I got up, I had my little coffee in the morning, I’m waiting for the car to pick me up to take me to set and I get a call from Gaspar and he’s like, “Hey I’m at a café not too far from you. Can you come over and meet me here?” I said, “Yeah but the car is coming to pick me up like right now.” And he’s like, “Oh no, no, no, I called them and I told them not to get you. Just come over to the café which is a couple of blocks down on the left and meet me there. There is somebody I want you to meet.” Okay, so I walk over to the café and there is a young guy there whose name is Juan and he’s actually in the movie. Juan didn’t know it, but Gaspar wanted to put him in the movie so he has me meet him to see if he can play my best friend. So I meet that guy and he’s like nice and we talked for a minute. He had done this with a couple of other actors and I tried to give him the thumbs up. And he turns to Juan says, “So can you come by to the set today for a little screen test? Would you be cool with that?” The guy was like, “Sure, cool.” Gaspar then said, “Cool, just make sure you’re not late.” So then we go to set and a couple hours later Juan shows up and he thinks that he’s just doing a little audition or something, and both the cameras are set up. I don’t know what the shot’s going to be, neither does Gaspar, neither does Benoît Debie (the director of photography). They (Gaspar and Benoît) play with the lights for 45 minutes before they find a shot that they like, and that’s literally how they work. He just knew that if he put me in this position or if he put her in that position, then maybe he could match cut it with a different scene. He is giving himself options in the editing room. And then before Juan knows it he’s signing his NDA and he’s cast in the movie, and like 10 minutes later I’m like screaming at him that I’m going to kill him for like fucking my girlfriend and this and that. It was like that the whole time. We wouldn’t have an actor cast and he’d say we gotta go find an actor, and we would go out that night and go trolling the bars looking for someone who might be able to play the police commissioner and then we would run it through Vincent Maraval, our producer at Wild Bunch. Gaspar would tell them, “Hey you should be in the movie” and they were like “nah, nah, nah.” And Gaspar was like, “No, no, no, you should show up tomorrow.” And that’s how it was. Gaspar would have friends show up on set and make cameos, and it was all very, very improvised, very in the moment, very immediate. The whole nature of the movie and in terms of his process is surprising himself, surprising everybody around him and kind of not planning. That’s kind of the way it was with him. It was just like go, go, go and you never knew what you were going to get that day. His whole mantra was every day is Christmas. What do you want for Christmas today? And I think that he kind of lives by that; that life is short and that the only promise that God ever made to man is that you’re going to die and you might as well enjoy it now because you don’t know what dreams may come.

BK: I imagine many people, especially in America, will be quick to dismiss “Love” as just a porno, but it really isn’t. What’s fascinating is how it portrays sex in its different forms.

KG: Yeah, sex is a necessary component to love. Let’s get real here; real love requires that. You can love someone without having sex with them, but if you are in love with someone, especially when you are young, you’d probably, I think, would want to have sex with them. The whole porno conversation is a bit of a joke and a bit of a marketing thing. I’ve talked to a lot of people who have gotten a lot out of this. They had an experience, and I think those who are patient with the film will see something much bigger than what they might assume is some raunchy porno. I would be hard-pressed to think that Pierre Rissient who runs the Cannes Film Festival would let some piece of trash into his festival. He has high standards usually.

BK: Your character of Murphy is very self-absorbed.

KG: Definitely (laughs).

BK: But that reminded me of how self-absorbed we can get when we are young or when we are in love. It’s like the outside world almost doesn’t exist and the movie does a very good job of making us remember a time like that in our own lives?

KG: He’s a bit of a bitter loser, not making films. He’s a young filmmaker guided by passion.

BK: While Murphy may not be altogether likable, we are still compelled to follow him throughout this movie. How did you approach this character?

KG: I went to school, I studied seriously and I had incredible teachers that I admire. I admire talented and great actors and I have no interest in just being in a porno. Gaspar Noe is someone who I consider to be a brilliant filmmaker and someone I always wanted to work with, and it was all about trusting him and his vision and being part of that. When we talked about the characters I was asking all these questions. Who is this guy? What is he like? What does he want? He’s so secretive and he’s always kind of withholding information. Gaspar was like, “Well he’s kind of like sort of a funny guy, kind of clever at this and that.” At one point he said, “Maybe is kind of like my friend Harmony Korine when he was younger but not so drugged out. He’s just kind of funny in that way.” Gaspar was always complaining that I was too sweet to the girls and said, “I want you to ravage them. I want you to do this.” And I always thought that since we were making what some people might think of as sort of a dirty movie that I should be really sweet and really kinder. I always would try to insert jokes. I was always trying to make the crew laugh as much as possible while we were rolling. It’s kind of my fantasy that 10 years down the line maybe Gaspar will let me have a crack at editing my own version so that I could release a 3-D comedy because I think there is an alternate version where there’s a very sweet, a very funny Murphy which was what I was trying to do. But in the end he didn’t want it to be too funny. He didn’t want Rock Hudson. He wanted someone who was more bitter and had a lot of contradictions and would say one thing and like and then go do something else just like real people, he said. At one point, Murphy has sex with another girl at a party while his girlfriend Electra is in the other room and I was like, what was that? That makes me a total liar and he said, “Yeah, just like real life. People lie and people cheat on each other.” And I really had a moment where I was like, “Yeah you’re right.” We’re really just trying to make something that really felt honest. It’s not the smoothest, most cinematic piece where someone turns to their close-up mark perfectly so that the lover turns their collar and walks off into the rain. It’s not like that. It’s messy and it’s meant to feel much more like an honest depiction of what he or I or our friends relate to.

BK: I kept thinking that your character was more or less based on Gaspar especially in the moment where Murphy says his favorite movie is “2001.”

KG: There’s definitely a lot of that. I’m wearing Gaspar’s clothes in many of the scenes like T-shirts that he didn’t even wash. I would smell like his armpits. And sometimes he wouldn’t like the color of my pants and he would just pull his pants off and we would switch right there. He decided keep my belt because we had slightly different waist sizes. A lot of the story came from his own experiences. Not everything. There are certain things like I don’t think Gaspar ever impregnated the wrong woman, the woman he wasn’t in love with. He drew from some of his friends’ experiences and took them apart and put them together to create this portrait of a love story and tried to hit all aspects of it that he could think of. But as you see, a lot of the characters’ names are… Noe is the gallery owner, Gaspar is the child, and Murphy is actually Gaspar’s mother’s maiden name. He wanted to make what he felt was his most personal film, so there are little tombstones there to his loved ones and friends with the characters’ names. But obviously there’s also visual inside jokes. You can see the model of the Love Hotel from “Enter the Void” somewhere in the movie. I even tried to do little things that I think he kind of got a kick out of. I would change the time on the clocks to Gaspar’s birthday. I pulled out the DVD case of “I Stand Alone” at one point. It’s nice to have those Easter eggs there.

BK: There are a lot of easter eggs throughout this movie. He has all these posters of movies he really likes and which had an effect on him as a filmmaker like “Taxi Driver.”

KG: He’s got a pretty amazing poster collection. He keeps them all sort of rolled up or laid flat. He doesn’t hang them up, but he’s got some really rare ones. That “M” poster that you see at one point in my room is one of four existing “M” posters in the world. I think the Nazis destroyed most of them, and that one is one of four and I think it’s like one the nicest condition ones. I think he goes and does a commercial and get a bunch of money and then blows it all on old movie posters.

BK: I imagine a lot of people tried to dissuade you from doing this movie because of the nudity involved and the potentially negative effect it could have on your career. But you have since been cast in movies directed by Tom Ford and Nicolas Winding Refn.

KG: Nic is awesome.

BK: Working with Nic was fun?

KG: Yeah I would love to plug Nic right now. He, like Gaspar, is an auteur. He has final cut, he works from a script too, and he’s just one of these interesting guys who can paint his own picture. You’re not gonna tell him like, “No I need more green on this. I don’t like that. You need to change that.” He is someone who doesn’t like to be told what to do but however, like Gaspar, he is a collaborator and he’s very inclusive. When I was cast, I had this sort of blank canvas. I told him anyone can do this part and he said, “Karl if we cast you then you and I will build this character together and we will make it something.” And he was bringing me over to his house for meetings along with the other actors. He always asked everybody, what do you think of this? How do you think this should happen? What do you think you should do in the scene? Where should you be from, or how do you feel about that? And Nicolas shoots chronologically which is cool because then you can change where the story goes. I think the ending of the movie is completely different now than the draft I read initially before auditioning for it. He doesn’t know where he’s going, he doesn’t know what’s going to be, so that’s what’s exciting. So in a way I guess in a way he is similar to Gaspar like that in the sense of he wants to surprise himself. I think that’s pretty fun. I think Hitchcock was once quoted as saying “shooting a movie is the least exciting part of making a movie” because he already knew what everything was going to look like whereas I think these two filmmakers were talking about how that in a way they had no idea where they were going. They both want to see how deep the rabbit hole goes. I think Gaspar was really happy with the end product. He said it came out much better than he ever thought, and I think that was in big part because of hiring Aomi who I think is just lovely and just fantastic in the movie and Klara who’s just so brave as well. I think these girls were just so generous and so joyful on set, and we got something much better than what he ever anticipated. And Nic and I have stayed in touch. He needled me a little bit saying that just a hang tight and that we were going to make another movie together, and I told him he can’t fuck with me like that. If we’re going to bed and we’re gonna fuck then we better fuck. Let’s not talk about it. He once said that making a movie with an actor is like going to bed with them because you make this baby with a big movie.

BK: It sounds like “Love” has had a very positive effect on your career so far. How would you describe the overall effect it has had?

KG: Well I mean it’s just kind of like a more immediate and obvious level. I met Tom Ford at Cannes, and so I happened to be in the same venue as him and talked to him about his movie. A couple of months went by before he hired me, but that meeting led to a job. Gaspar actually called Nic Refn personally in front of me and sold him the movie and told him to hire me. He gave me this ridiculous pitch which sounded better than any agent saying “he is the most daring and most professional actor in the world!” I don’t know if he went out on a limb but he didn’t have to do that, and his recommendation meant a lot to Nicolas because Nicolas has a lot of respect for Gaspar. And the movie resonates with certain filmmakers and certain actors who I admire and would love to work with some day. The movie has had nothing but a positive effect. My mother, she cried when I told her that we were going to go to Cannes. That was a big deal for her that her son might get to go to a big international film festival like that. I always wanted to do things that made my mother proud of me and cheer her up. When I was a little kid actually I think that was kind of the first thing that got me into acting is when my parents split up. I used to entertain my mom in the kitchen cleaning pots and pans and putting a chef’s hat on my head and pretending to have a cooking show. I called it Thor’s Kitchen because my mom was really into Norse mythology and I would make imaginary recipes in front of her and try to make her laugh. I think she has always been the driving force for me. So although she hasn’t seen this movie yet, and it will probably be some time before she does, she’s very proud of it and I think my dad kind of understands it better than some people too that there is a theory to cinema. Not every movie is just entertainment. Some movies have political messages or social messages. Some movies have an ambition to do a little bit more than just entertaining for an hour and a half while you’re chewing on popcorn.

BK: And some movies are meant to be an experience more than anything else

KG: Exactly, and this is one of them. It is not an experience for everybody, but some people will like it a lot hopefully.

I want to thank Karl Glusman for taking the time to talk with me. Special thanks also goes to WooJae Chung for the use of his photo at the top of Glusman which comes from his film “Consilience.” Gaspar Noe’s “Love” is now available to own, watch and rent on DVD, Blu-ray, and Digital.

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