Of course I’m behind the times and just managed to see Vicky Cristina Barcelona last weekend. I enjoyed it quite a bit but I’m a Woody Allen fan. It seems to be true that you either love Woody Allen or despise him. I was quite riveted throughout the film, really enjoying myself, and it wasn’t until I went to bed that certain things about the screenplay started occurring to me.
In terms of screenwriting “rules,” here’s everything Woody Allen did “wrong”:
1. Narration. One of the big “debates” in screenwriting is the use of voice-over and how much, if any, should be allowed (in my own screenplays, I can’t bring myself to allow any voice-over). This movie opens with some guy talking, telling us everything, and he hardly shuts up throughout the film. He tells us when characters are enjoying their lunch and what they are thinking. It’s basically a big cheat because the job of the screenwriter is to write what we see and hear on screen. To have some voice just come in and suck out all the nuances usually results in a crap movie and it seems lazy. For example, if a character is enjoying having lunch with another character, if those two are starting to feel some sexual attraction for one another, the writer would show this through conversation and actions. Generally, it’s more interesting that way. Here,the narrator is a disembodied voice. He’s not a character in the movie. Who is he? He’s omniscient – he can tell you exactly what is happening with each character, even exactly what they are thinking and feeling. Is it some kind of Woody Allen-esque god?
2. Dialogue. The characters all share the same speaking patterns. Basically, they all sound like Woody Allen and every other Woody Allen character in every Woody Allen movie. There is a lot self-analysis and self-awareness within even the most mundane conversations. When asked a question, the characters don’t give one-word or even one-sentence answers. Screenwriters spend a lot of time trying to make their characters sound authentic and to allow speech to define who someone is. What someone says is as important as what they don’t say. This really doesn’t happen here at all (except, one might argue, with Maria Elena, Penelope Cruz’s character). She’s nuts so she has to sound different and maybe that’s why she’s been held up as the stand-out performer in this film.
3. Off Screen Action. This is one of my biggest peeves – when something really big, really dramatic happensÂ off-screen at some unknown time and place. This means we, the audience, only hear about it later. There are so many examples of this in this movie. After watching it I realized that I saw the movie but missed all the good parts. We don’t get to see Vicky (Rebecca Hall) and Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) have sex. We don’t even get to see the post-coital conversation. We don’t get to see much of Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) and Juan Antonio having sex except for their heads. Yes, they are attractive people but watching two heads when you know the real action is going on elsewhere gets to be a bummer. Which raises another point: why hire the hottest actors and actresses you can find and then not show us anything?
We don’t see much of Maria Elena and Cristina hooking up other than a strange and awkwardly staged scene in the dark room that has Maria Elena rubbing Cristina’s arm and then the two of them kissing. We don’t get to see Juan Antonio and Maria Elena having sex or hear any to their conversations leading up to their decision to sleep with each other again. Boo. Boring. We hear about much of this action later, when Cristina talks about it at a cafe and some scenes are shown in flashback. Without flashback and narration, there would be no movie.
But in the end, the film is very watchable and the situations compelling. This is no He’s Just Not That Into You. There are complications, missed moments and the very real conundrum of wanting to do what’s expected vs. wanting to do what’s in your heart at a particular moment in time. And maybe this is why, in the end, it all works. Because the writer really did care and was interested in what his characters did.
The ending could be seen as a non-ending or, rather, the summer in Barcelona ends but, of course, the lives of the characters go on. There should probably be more movies that don’t tie things up for the audience with a bow and acknowledge that we do have brains in our heads. We can extrapolate, wonder, discuss. Isn’t that what art is meant to inspire in people?
And so what the lesson might be this: learn all the rules, prove yourself, break all the rules. Or, keep making movies until you’re in your 70s and they’ll let you do whatever you want.