It was not until I saw Penélope Cruz in Volver that I fully understood why she is Pedro Almódovar’s muse. Such depth and remarkable ease in playing, such a pleasure to see her on screen. It took one great director to discover her real talent and introduce us to a great actress at her highest performing capacity. “Pedro would push me to the limit. He really knows how to press all my buttons. You can only go into something like that when it’s somebody you really trust.” And it took another great filmmaker, Woody Allen, to further explore her acting skills and win her a well deserved Oscar. Or, better said, watching Cruz in Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona is, simply put, a lesson in the art of acting. Her role is so intense that it left me a lasting impression of her untamed passion, power of attraction and volcanic temperament. A torrent of a performance. Vicky Cristina has a natural vivacity and sun-drenched splendour, the luscious beauty of Barcelona playing a major role (the cinematographer was Javier Aguirresarobe), but it’s Penélope who brings it to life. The film belongs to her. “I don’t want to look at Penélope directly. It’s too overwhelming”, Woody Allen would say.
Cruz, as the emotionally unpredictable ex-wife of Javier Bardem’s Juan Antonio (the film belongs to Javier to a certain extent, too), artist María Elena, is stunning in every sense of the word. Woody Allen starts building her character even before she appears on screen, through the conversations of the other characters about María Elena. We get a strong sense of her tempestuous temperament and magnetic beauty even before we see her. But her presence on screen – her stance, her body language, her eye contact – is enticing. The switching between Spanish and English (her lines with Javier Bardem are ferociously funny – the director let them improvise in Spanish – and she never lets up on the constant verbal exchange), the chain-smoking, the mood swings, the uproar she causes; she is quick-witted, and manic, and untamed. But also erotic, touching and possessed of a beguiling, devastating beauty. And she brings on screen an equally tumultuous, somptuously disheveled style, largely consisting of running mascara, Bardot hair, nighties as dresses, and black dresses as summerwear.
Lingerie as daywear. Costume designer Sonia Grande found the pink satin slip dress at L´Arca de la Avia, a vintage store in Barcelona.
What would Woody Allen’s films be without their vibrant, odd, beautiful, and unique women? But as far as Allen’s heroines’ fashion is concerned, his movies have not exactly been renowned for spawning style icons, not since Diane Keaton in 1997’s Annie Hall (and maybe Mariel Hemingway in 1979’s Manhattan), anyway. But Penélope’s María Elena has been my summer style muse ever since the release of Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
María Elena’s clothing consists mainly of vintage finds, her costumes indicating her creativity and bohemian soul. It was the most difficult character in the film to conceive for costume designer Sonia Grande, who wanted to give her a look that was visually interesting and contemporary, as she was confessing in this interview. Grande, who would continue her collaboration with Woody Allen on Midnight in Paris and To Rome with Love (also starring Cruz), had, interestingly enough, previously worked with Penélope on one of Almódovar’s films, Los abrazos rotos (Broken Embraces), where Penélope’s demanding character goes through several transformations which require a great emotional strain from the actress, and clothes helped to tell the story: “Her character had to be beautiful, without us forgetting that elegance can be a direct route to sadness”, Sonia Grande told Elle.
In Vicky Cristina, Grande once again did a great job, managing to perfectly portray the spirit of María Elena, but also the beatnik spirit. Two signficant items that announce her bohemian status are a large leather bag emblazoned with a tiger’s face and a white antique linen and lace chemise with a hint of transparency. She reveals her essence, but also her erotic, dangerous, rumpled allure through her clothing choices.
“Say something in Chinese. […] Do you think that’s beautiful?”
“Not talent, genius.”
The costume designer further explains the starting point of the inspiration for building the character of María Elena: During filming, “I went to the bar on my street once, and the waitress caught my eye. I really liked what she transmitted, not what she was wearing, but the inside concept of her. Then I started thinking about the character as I was drinking a glass of wine, watching this girl’s gestures. From that, I thought of Frida Kahlo” – and how rightfully The New Yorker described María Elena as a “Frida Kahlo without the discipline to work” – “and she reminded me of a friend my mother used to have from the Cafe Gijon. That woman lived with the painters and artist of that period, she had no money, but she had a very interesting style. That kind of woman that creates her own image in flea markets, things she borrows, etc. She generated a very special artistic feeling. I took that concept to what a person would do nowadays, an artist that has no money. And I thought that vintage clothes would help. If a person with good taste goes to a flea market, and she’s an artist, she will recognize the good items. Maybe she’ll buy them for five cents. I designed that character from there.”
Bohemians are intriguing personalities, but I love it how Sonia Grande conveys the unconventional, original and authentic nature of María Elena by keeping her style simple, through carefully chosen, rare antique garments. “I think that the simpler you look, the better. The viewer needs to be paying attention to the message the actors are expressing.”
What María Elena’s clothes also project is an antithesis of middle class respectability, the underlying context of tensions between art and conventional society being an ever-present preoccupation of Allen’s films. And the vintage lace-embellished pink satin slip worn as daywear is the key element that defines her look. She frees from conventions and rules by ingeniously reinterpreting the past. Not only that, but her dress simultaneously divulges her fractured mental state and vulnerability through uncovering the protective layers of outerwear.
Black summer dress with split sleeves. A summery floral dress wouldn’t have been fitting for her character.
sources: W Magazine / The New Yorker / Style Lovely / Costuming the Middle Classes, Anti-Fashion as Aspirational Fashion in Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Midnight in Paris, an essay from the University for the Creative Arts Rochester / Elle
photos: movie stills captured by me | Weinstein Company/The Mediapro /Gravier Productions | cinematographer: Javier Aguirresarobe