Woody Allen has gotten lazy. Either that, or he’s making some sort of artistic statement by writing a movie with a philosophical subtext so easy to read it’s insulting. (It may even be appropriate to say there’s no subtext at all—it’s all in the text.)
Instead of explicating (pointing out?) the roles of Vicky or Christina—the annoying narrator gives us neat and tidy summaries of their personalities, both before and after their summer in Barcelona—I’m going to focus on Juan Antonio Gonzalo, played by Javier Bardem. This is the heroic character in the film, as is made clear by his ability to win the affection all the women onscreen. Further, Juan Antonio’s heroism is tied to his mantra: “only unfulfilled love is romantic.” (Notably, Juan Antonio learned this mantra from the only other heroic character in this film, his ex-wife Maria Elena.)
Since Richard Corliss, the entertainment columnist for the Time magazine, called Vicky Christina Barcelona “a God’s-eye view” of this mantra, there’s reason to believe Allen intended Juan Antonio’s character to represent a comprehensive way of looking at the world. In contrast to Christina, who thinks “authentic love gives life meaning,” Juan Antonio has looked into the starless abyss of life and declared himself a thoroughgoing hedonist. When asked if he’s religious, Juan Antonio replies, “No, no, no, no I’m not. The trick is to enjoy life, accepting it has no meaning whatsoever.”
So Christina finds meaning in authentic love, and Vicky finds it in some abstract (and ungrounded) valuation of commitment and fidelity. But in Juan Antonio, Allen has constructed a character totally uninterested in traditional ways of arbitrating moral decisions. Yet he’s drawn to the beauty of Gaudí’s cathedrals, and the sculpture that he finds most inspirational is a rugged crucifix in a lonesome Oviedan chapel. At the end of the day, the opposition Allen erects between European and American sensibilities is not reducible to a world ruled by convention and one wherein conventions have been tossed aside to allow for unrestrained lovemaking. What distinguishes Juan Antonio most from his American co-stars is not (primarily) his liberated libido, but the fact that he’s comfortable living among the mysterious.
This sense of the mysterious is what gives Juan Antonio his charm. Unlike the turistas Americanas, Juan Antonio moves in a world imbued with beauty, color—and oceans of full-bodied wine. At its height, Juan Antonio’s sense of the mysterious is strong enough to produce an alternative rationality. For instance, in the course of explaining why he and Maria Elena are not still together, Juan Antonio states simply, “We are meant for each other and not meant for each other. It’s a contradiction.” Likewise, the live-in ménage à trois between Christina, Maria Elena, and Juan Antonio requires no stretch of the imagination for the latter two.
At first, Christina is able to legitimate this scenario by trading on what “feels natural.” But her thoughts soon overpower her feelings. She eventually leaves Juan Antonio because she’s unable to intellectually justify the way her life with him looks. And she’s not alone in her assessment. Such a life as Juan Antonio’s is literally unintelligible to Doug, Vicky’s Wall Street fiancée. According to Doug, if everyone engaged in ménages à trois, society would crumble. (Allen has Vicky wittily dismiss Doug’s Kantian criticism: “Let’s not get into one of those turgid categorical imperative arguments.”)
Let’s return briefly to Juan Antonio’s (and Allen’s) conviction that “only unfulfilled love is romantic.” What’s so special about unfulfilled love?
At first blush, one would be tempted to answer that, if satisfaction is impossible, then the least we can do is to ensure excitement. (Understood thus, unfulfilled love is similar to forbidden love: breaking the rules is thrilling.) It’s like Kierkegaard’s aesthete, who consciously “rotates the crops”—by choosing a new interest every few weeks—to avoid boredom.
But I’m willing to bet there’s more to Juan Antonio (and, therefore, to Woody Allen). Since God is not properly a thing existing on the same plane or in the same dimension as other things in this world, then might we say that our love for God will always remain “unfulfilled”? This assumes—and I think it’s a fair assumption—that we get our ideas of fulfillment from our experience loving earthly objects. But God is not an earthly object, (again) not a thing among things. (Theologians call this God’s “transcendence.”) So “fulfillment” as it concerns love for material objects may not be possible when we make God our object. Then the “unfulfilled love” of which Juan Antonio speaks, while still a far cry (objectively) from the healing and regenerative love for God, may not be so far (subjectively) as it seems.
If my characterization of our experience of God is true, then it may be no surprise why so many of us flock after the unfulfilled (and forbidden) love of one lover after another. Moreover, if Allen intends such a reading of “unfulfilled love,” this may account for Juan Antonio’s keen sense of the mysterious. It may even account for his fascination with the crucified Christ, who bled that we might find fulfillment (and fullness!) in his blood.