Film

'Barcelona' Sends Whit Stillman's Usual Suspects After Love in a Hot Climate

The middle section in Whit Stillman's loose '90s trilogy showcases all his trademarks while moving his characters from college into the wider world.


Barcelona

Director: Whit Stillman
Cast: Taylor Nichols, Chris Eigeman, Mira Sorvino, Tushka Bergen
Running time: 101 minutes
Distributor: The Criterion Collection
Year: 1994

For over a decade, Whit Stillman was the disappeared man, lost to the financial failure of his third film, The Last Days of Disco, and a move to Europe to work on new screenplays. For Stillman devotees, a small but loyal group, his return in 2011 with Damsels in Distress was a delight, and now five years later, heady times have come. A new film, Love & Friendship, is out this summer, and his first three efforts, a loose trilogy of sorts, have all received The Criterion Collection treatment.

Barcelona comes in the middle, after his low budget debut Metropolitan (1990) that became a surprise hit, even garnering an Academy Award nomination for screenwriting, and before the glitzy The Last Days of Disco (1998). Released in 1994 but set a good decade earlier, it tackles the same themes, with the same actors, as his other work, and draws heavily on personal experiences. Stillman lived in Barcelona for a while, and one assumes he knows of what he speaks.

Not that the way his characters speak is particularly believable. Barcelona, set in the dying days of the Cold War, follows two American cousins as they fall in and out of love while struggling to reconcile their culture with the manner in which their hosts view them. Like his other films, they come from an East Coast, upper-middle class Ivy League background, and talk in sentences no one would ever say in public. Ted (Taylor Nichols), a suit-wearing, preppy sales rep, is referencing Dr Johnson almost immediately. His military cousin Fred (Chris Eigeman), determined to wear dress uniform despite orders to stick to civilian clothes, is no better.

In town to reconnoitre the local terrain before the arrival of the Sixth Fleet, Fred makes little effort to announce his visit beforehand, and unilaterally decides to stay with Ted. That the two seem to despise each other is clear straight away. Whether they like each other is not as important as discovering whether they like anything. Wrapped up in starched clothing and brittle manners, emotion rarely seeps into long and grammatically correct sentences.

Eigeman and Nichols had already worked with Stillman in Metropolitan, and both are experts at delivering his buttoned up, wordy dialogue. They present convincing faux-intellectuals in as much as they’re well-read, but with little in the way of conversational depth. When challenged by Ramon (Pep Munné), a local rabble-rouser and love rival, they come up with nothing to rebut his anti-American critiques.

Like Stillman’s other work, very little actually happens narratively. There is one explosive event, but even that soon settles back into the pattern of drawn out conversation, subtle humour and endless flirtation. Humour and flirtation are really the key ingredients. Stillman laces his dialogue with endless jokes, all delivered deadpan, the next punchline rolling along before the last can be digested. If anything sums Stillman up, it’s Ted’s disgust at finding his Lionel Hampton concert is actually Vinyl Hampton, an in-film band so unlistenable they’re played later at a party to mark the first few hours before dancing is permitted. That mix of cultural references, wordplay and call-backs is a trademark.

Then there’s the flirtation, which is really all about romance. Ted and Fred spend their days, and a lot of evenings, hitting a variety of parties, clubs and bars in search of love. They hang out with English speaking Spanish trade show reps, women excited and repelled by their Americanness. Ted has a theory that physical beauty ruins any chance of finding the inner beauty in a partner, and vows to avoid the genuinely attractive. This quickly falls through when he thinks he has true love with Montserrat (Tushka Bergen). Incidentally, Nichols met his Spanish wife while working on the production. Fred also finds a partner, spending his time with Marta (Mira Sorvino), though he doesn’t worry whether she’s the one. Their drift in and out of intimacy fills up most of the running time.

What marks out Stillman’s work, aside from cleverly constructed dialogue, is the love he feels for his characters. Fred, a preppily boorish, pro-military American railing at the selfishness of the locals who call him fascist, and Ted, an odd, almost puritan figure who hides his bible inside a copy of The Economist could easily be figures of fun. Instead, they’re used to look at the growing pains of the east coast elite. Where Metropolitan, puts them in the throes of college life, here they’re out in the world of work, worrying about the mundane concerns of hiring and firing as they attempt to make lives and find love. The culture clash between left-wing Europe and America the overlord plays out nicely in the background, demonstrating the confusion these closeted American elites face when the real world beckons.

By the end, it’s just possible Ted and Fred have managed to like something after all, though God forbid they should ever let on to anyone. Barcelona is a film focussed on a very small sub-stratum of society, in which very little happens, but I t’s still tremendously entertaining. It may drift all over the place, happy to wander off on whatever digression its characters happen to be talking about, but it’s sharp, smart and fun. No one else makes anything quite like this, and while it’s not real life, who says that’s all the movies should be.

The Criterion Collection release is a restored 2K digital transfer overseen by Stillman and cinematographer John Thomas. Extras include a 2002 audio commentary with Stillman, Nichols and Eigeman, a video essay on Stillman’s work, deleted scenes, an alternate ending, and archive documentary and interview footage.

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