Image from 'Vicki, Cristina, Barcelona'

It’s not inherently a bad thing that the characters in Woody Allen’s movies tend to be victims of their lusts, but it shows a weakness in his vision and his films, writes TAC guest contributor Shmuel Ben-Gad.

In the summer of 2008, the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington screened Woody Allen’s 1977 movie Annie Hall. There was a very interesting discussion afterward, during which one of the two main speakers, Amy Kass, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, called the film vile.

Having seen Annie Hall many times before and being something of a Woody Allen fan, I found her description rather startling. I think Allen has made some of the funniest movies of the past few decades, though I am hardly blind to his faults. When he deals with more serious themes, he tends to be heavy-handed, and his attempts at characterization are often clunky, often explicitly defining characters through their cultural tastes.

Kass’s comments came to mind again when I saw Allen’s most recent film, Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona.

This film is hardly one of his best, but the theme is basically identical to those of his films in which humor and seriousness are most effectively melded: Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Husbands and Wives. That theme is the overpowering role of sexual passion in human affairs, and its changeable and ephemeral nature.

In these films virtually all of the main characters are the playthings of their lusts. In Vicki, Christina, Barcelona, two American young women vacation together in Spain. Their sexual mores are rather different. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is engaged to be married, and Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) is promiscuous. Both, however, ultimately fall for a passionate Spanish artist (Javier Bardem). In addition, the marriage of the older couple with whom they are staying is not as stable as it first appears.  There is also a homosexual element to the story.

The only major character who appears to have a sense of stability and commitment is Vicky’s fiance and later husband, Doug (Chris Messina). When he attempts to articulate a more traditional sexual morality, however, he is quickly shut up by other characters. Aside from that moment and a brief comment by Vicky about her husband having entered into marriage with her in good faith, we are treated to characters who are caught up in confusion, dissatisfaction, and self-pity. In the end, it is easy to grow tired of them.

And thus I return to Kass’s comment. Woody Allen certainly portrays a vile world of sexual anarchy.  It is particularly vile, it seems to me, because the characters generally seem oblivious to the moral smallness of their lives. They talk and talk about themselves, but it is based on narcissism rather than anything resembling morally serious self-reflection.

Nonetheless, I do not think Allen’s movies are vile, because it is clear to me that Allen sees through his characters and, at times, they see through each other. He does not celebrate his flawed characters as bold sexual adventurers leading the way to a utopia of free love. On the contrary, there is an underlying pessimism and sadness in his vision.

Unfortunately, Allen’s films fall far short of excellent satire, in my view, because such satire requires, at least implicitly, a positive alternative to that which it scorns. The idea of another way of life, of making the choice to be faithful to someone and exercising self-restraint to honor that commitment, does not seem a living option to these people or, ultimately, it appears, to the filmmaker.

I certainly would not wish for Allen to show a sentimentalized married couple to “balance” the anarchic sexual lives he depicts; I have no use for sentimentality. What is strange and sad, however, is that he seems unable to depict, among his casts of varied characters through many films, individuals who seriously try to lead honorable, faithful, married lives.

I cannot help but suspect that Allen sees no point in doing so. His films suggest that he thinks we have no choice but to be overwhelmed by our passions. I am not sure that his failure to recognize a better way is vile, but it is, I think, morally stunted. And so are his films.

–Shmuel Ben-Gad