Penélope Cruz as Maria Elena in Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Best Supporting Actress at the 81st Annual Oscars (2008)
“You’ve always liked my mood swings.”
Three women are involved in a complex love quadrangle with artist Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem): Vicky (Rebecca Hall), Cristina (Scarlett Johansen) and Barcelona … umm, I mean, Maria Elena (Penélope Cruz), his ex-wife.
Maria Elena is a dynamic force of nature. She has an artist’s temperament: when she’s hurting, she’s not gonna cry quietly. Instead, she’ll scream and swear, and wave a weapon around – you know, very emotionally balanced stuff. But when she’s calm, she’s obviously sensitive and intelligent, and has a gift for helping other people access their talents. And while I appreciate her kinder side – she seems fun to go on a museum date with –I’m here for the antics, especially when she channels all of her jealous rage at her ex’s new girlfriend. From constantly refusing to speak English, to straight up admitting that she went through Cristina’s luggage because she didn’t trust her, her behavior is inappropriate but hilarious.
In addition to her mesmerizing baseline personality, Maria Elena also fills a fascinating role in the film. She doesn’t appear until halfway through the movie, but even before that, she hangs over everything like a specter. Juan Antonio has built up a huge mythology around her … so of course, when she reappears and reveals that she’ll be staying with Cristina and Juan Antonio, it throws a major wrench into their relationship. It’s a classic story of two exes that can’t extricate themselves from one another’s lives. And then, she drives so much of the plot, in the most unexpected ways: there are surprising friendships, a brief pivot to polyamory, and a shooting.
Holy shit, Penélope Cruz is such an incredible presence in this movie. I mentioned all of the yelling she does, but even her simplest acts, like smoking and glowering at the dinner table, are ~moments~ because she does them with such force. At all times, she carries herself with a coiled energy, as if ready to spring at any moment. She feels unpredictable and dangerous, as Maria Elena should. But of course, she’s also endearing. Her character has several conversations with Scarlett Johansen’s in which she’s so gentle and honest. We understand immediately why everyone is obsessed with her: how could you not be?
I’m also obsessed with how Cruz delivers her lines: words fly out of her tongue in a really sharp way, and I mean sharp both as in “intelligent” and “a knife”. It’s obvious that she had a deep understanding of the nuances of her character, which allows her to perfectly place emphases and pauses. And I haven’t even spoken about how funny she is: she plays everything so straight, exactly as she should. This isn’t actually a role with a lot of screentime, but Cruz uses every moment she’s on camera to such effect that it’s a dominant performance.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona is a goofy but engaging film. I think (fingers crossed) it’s the last Woody Allen film that will show up in this column, and it finally clued me in on the way that his movies always have a stupid element that spells everything out for the audience. This one literally has a narrator that explains the character’s feelings on love: let the movie speak for itself, please! Especially because I appreciate the film’s themes around love, that it’s complicated and everyone is just muddling forward in their attempts to find it. Obviously, Cruz steals the show, but everyone else is quite charming as well.
Was the Oscar deserved?
Absolutely, Cruz is phenomenal.