Vicky Christina Barcelona and the Voiceover

Vicky Christina Barcelona, Woody Allen’s latest, is a pretty sharp bit of work. The film applies a sort of casually biting look at the lives of its protagonists, playing around with the notions and limitations of relationships and love.

The film follows the adventures of Vicky, a neurotic woman convinced she’s looking for a very traditional and stable sort of relationship, and Christina, a hopeful bohemian who seems to thrive on chaotic relationships, during a summer trip to Spain. Once there, the pair encounter Juan Antonio, an artist who propositions them both to become his lovers. Vicky is of course appalled and Christina of course enraptured.

As the film progresses, though, both women grow to form different attachments to Juan Antonio and his erractic and brilliant ex-wife Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz in an Oscar-winning performance) that cause them to mature and evolve their views on life and love and relationships.

Woody Allen films are, all the way through, an acquired taste. They feel an awful lot like theater in their staging and dialogue and they border the preposterous at times with the scenarios that are presented. Even his more recent films that don’t feel much like traditional Woody Allen (Match Point also comes to mind), have something about them that sets them apart somehow in their presentation.

For Vicky Christina Barcelona, it’s the voiceover.

The voiceover is a much maligned bit of screenwriting technique in all the standard tomes on the subject. It breaks a principle rule for good writing, which is that the author show, rather than tell, the audience critical details. At first, it does indeed seem that Allen is abusing this conceit in his film. During the opening moments of the movie you are told, in about the same fashion as my synopsis above, all about the lives and tendencies of the two woman the film follows. It feels a lot like Allen wants you to get all these details the easy way so he can just jump off into the deep end of the pool without needing to wade his way through anything first.

Why then does Allen then take the time to have scenes of dialogue between Vicky and Christina that exist only to very clearly illustrate that they display the type of character that he has just described to you? Is he being redundant? Maybe he’s too old for this crap now? Doubtful.

The voiceover crops up periodically throughout the film… and it always is telling you something in very plain terms exactly what the film itself appears to be showing you, again in very plain terms. It’s not so much a crucial bit of exposition for the main narrative as it is a parallel narrative – just watching along with you. But to what end?

As with the breaking of any and all screenwriting tropes, it comes down to style. Allen is trying to evoke something very particular here, and the narration takes the film from being a modern talking-heads style drama and gives it a bit of classic style. It also gives a bit of a sense that you’re watching a parable play out (similar to the too-short-lived Pushing Daises on ABC).

Would the film have been better without the voiceover? Critics across the net say yes. I say it would be different. Maybe it would be better from a modern sensibility, maybe it would make more screenplay professors happy. However, all the voiceover was to Allen was another tool to evoke a particular feeling.

The moral of this particular story? Always, always, ALWAYS break the rules when it helps you say what you want to say. Know the rules first, and then ignore them frequently.

Vicky Christina Barcelona also segues into a great talk about titling your writing. The film is about four people: Vicky, Christina, Juan Antonio, Maria Elena. The film is about a complex love affair. The only other thing named in the title is a city in the country the film is set in. So before you think that the film is only, or even primarily, about a relationship between people… think about that title.

But that’s a topic for another post.

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