Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Life is Short, Dull, Full of Pain

Woody Allen's Latest Vision of the (Non-)Meaning of Life

September 1, 2008
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Juan Antonio is trying to convince Vicky and Cristina, who he is just meeting, to go off with him for a weekend of sightseeing, good food and wine, and sex.  When Vicky, the more reticent of the two, asks why they would do this with a stranger, he tells them, “Life is short.  Life is dull. Life is full of pain.”

That is pretty much the thesis statement for this and many other Woody Allen films.  Allen often serves as the cinematic evangelist of nihilism, the philosophy that holds that life is meaningless, so there is no point in morality.  Vicky Cristina Barcelona is his latest sermon from that perspective.  While I don’t share in that philosophy, Allen always makes an interesting case.

Vicky and Cristina are two Americans spending the summer in Spain while Vicky supposedly works on finishing a thesis on Catalan culture.  When they go back home, Vicky will be getting married to the most vanilla person you can imagine.  Cristina has just broken up with a boyfriend and is looking for some healing.  The two women represent two views of love and life.  Vicky wants commitment and safety.  Cristina assumes suffering is a part of life and wants to fill the spaces between painful times with as much excitement as possible.

When Juan Antonio enters their story, he brings new possibilities to both of these women.  They both respond to him in different ways, just as he responds to both women in different ways.  Can Vicky taste of the passion that she finds in Juan Antonio and still be happy in a traditional marriage?  Can Cristina find fulfillment in the bohemian lifestyle that she finds with Juan Antonio (and his ex-wife)?  Is there any difference in following society’s rules or boldly breaking them?

These are the questions Allen has been asking for many years.  Perhaps his best treatment was Crimes and Misdemeanors, but the ideas are central to many of his films.  While often his films are light-hearted, at their core is the issue of the meaning of life.  Like the author of Ecclesiastes, Allen keeps asking where that meaning is to be found.  This installment of the conversation focuses on whether morality and convention have a place in defining that meaning.  Who is more likely to find happiness and fulfillment: the one who forsakes her desire in favor of a more traditional life or the one who abandons conformist ways to find the freedom of a moral anarchy?  Juan Antonio has a line that sums up the issue: “The trick is to enjoy life, even though it has no meaning.”  This concept may not be far off from that of Ecclesiastes.

Watching this film, I could tell that Vicky was never going to be satisfied with the bourgeois life that lay ahead for her, but maybe she was learning ways to escape that.  At the same time, the film doesn’t allow us to be comfortable with Cristina’s approach of an almost reckless abandon into a wilder life.  Finally, Allen leaves us with a question of whether either way leads to happiness, fulfillment, or meaning.  In fact, he almost seems to have disdain for the belief that someone can find such things.  My thought as I left was that Woody Allen can be very depressing—but in a good way.

Nihilism may seem to be an extremely dark view of life, but Allen manages to present it in a way that, while we may not think it’s right, is tolerable.  He uses beauty and humor to present ideas that may seem harsh and gloomy.  As we leave the theater, we certainly don’t feel a warm glow inside, but neither do we walk away in despair.  Instead, he tickles our minds into thought, inviting us to join in his discussion about the meaning of life—or about whether there is any meaning.  Allen’s films do this in much the same way that the parables of Jesus call us into their world and then shock us, forcing us to consider something in a new light.

While Allen has yet to win me over to his view of the world, I still enjoy the challenge of those ideas.  They may even lead me to do my own thinking about the real meaning of life.

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Darrel is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) living in southern California