16 April 2012

WHIT STILLMAN: BARCELONA (1994)

Released in 1994,Whit Stillman's sophomore film Barcelona came out four years after its predecessor, Metropolitan. In the context of his later career, this can be described as pretty quick turnaround. On the other hand, four years is a whole lot of time to work on a second feature, and given how pointedly artificial and fussy Stillman's first screenplay was, it seems fair that he'd have to take a lot of time to get things just so for the next go-round. And sure enough, Barcelona is pretty awesomely fussy, though a bit airier than Metropolitan, owing partially to being more opened up in physical space than the cramped Manhattan apartments of the director's first movie, partially because the smaller cast of protagonists isn't quite so madly in love with their own philosophical constructs.

The confession first, before we go any farther: of the three films that were, for quite a long time, the totality of Stillman's authorial career, Barcelona is the one I've thought about the least, primarily because it's my least favorite. It's still a delightful movie, wielding perilously over-wrought dialogue like fencing foils, and advancing through its plot with a relaxed, observatory pace that takes plenty of time to chase down ideas that seem interesting, without forcing itself to blitz from event to event, but still manages to clock in with a neat and tidy 101-minute running time that feels just about exactly the right length for what it's attempting to do. But depicting a cluster of collegians who don't really know what they want out of life is one kind of thing, and depicting a pair of mid-'20s professionals who more-or-less do know what they are want and are more-or-less getting it, leaving room solely for their romantic travails is a different thing, and Stillman's arch, overly-intellectual style fits the first scenario more comfortably. The film also suffers a bit from a third act that ties things together a bit too neatly and without being 100% honest to the characters as we've gotten to know them; and in the spirit of "criticism is always inherently subjective", I'll admit that I'm a bit cooler to Stillman's conservative politics as they're put forth in Barcelona, a movie that is explicit about such politics, than in Metropolitan, which exists within a conservative framework but isn't making any specific arguments along those lines.

But enough of that, and on to Barcelona itself. Inspired by the writer-director's own experiences in the titular city, the film takes place "before the end of the Cold War", somewhere in the 1980s. It is about two American cousins: Ted (Taylor Nichols), who has been sent to Barcelona from Chicago by his company to work in their Spanish sales office, some good time before the movie begins, and Fred (Chris Eigeman), a Naval officer newly arrived in advance of the U.S. fleet, meant to do some public relations work to encourage the locals to believe that the arrival of a whole mess of U.S. naval ships is something they might want. And this is something Fred does not manage to do very well, given that his attempts at winning the hearts and minds of the locals who spout short-sighted, painfully false ideas of what goes on in the daily lives of Americans is to get haughty and angry, eventually convincing a newspaper writer that he's a CIA plant. Even Ted kind of dislikes Fred, owing in part to a long-ago falling out that happened when they were both 10-year-old boys, and owing in part to Fred's unannounced arrival to live in Ted's living room for an undisclosed length of time, borrow his civilian clothes, and steal his money. On the other hand, Ted longs for some American contact himself, and they are family...

I've laid out the scenario of Barcelona more than the plot, mostly because the plot as such simply isn't the most interesting part. What ends up happening is that both of the young men get snarled up in an increasingly confusing (to them, and to us) series of romantic mishaps, largely involving two friends named Montserrat (Tushka Bergen, a dead ringer for Heather Graham) and Marta (Mira Sorvino), intensified because of Ted's steadfast desire to both over-think and over-simplify every situation in his life, and because Fred is far more concerned with being thought interesting than being liked. It's fine stuff, and fits in nicely with Metropolitan's exploration of how the very, very articulate can easily ruin their own romantic lives by focusing on their thoughts about romance rather than on their feelings about romance, though it suffers a bit from all of the women in the cast being largely undeveloped.

Which is kind of a flaw, but not really, since developing the women or indeed the romantic subplots that give Barcelona its spine is of minimal interest to the film and to us. The heart and soul of the film lies in the relationship of the two men, and the disorientation they feel in a culture that has decided in advance of the evidence that they must be superficial, awful people. And it must be said, by reducing his focus to just two characters - though Ted is the narrator and receives more screentime, the film is otherwise pretty evenly balanced - Stillman manages to be far more precise in his character studies than he was in Metropolitan; though as with that film, he begins by focusing on the "type" that each man occupies (Ted is uncertain of himself, shy, and talky; Fred is brash, eager, and boyish), and then proceeding for the rest of the movie in feeling out the ways that they subvert the role that the film has provided for them. And as with Barcelona, Eigeman proves to be extravagantly good at doing this - Fred is already the more overtly dynamic character, and he begins the movie from a place of stronger definition than the deliberately blank Ted. The best moments and line readings are all Eigeman's - his slightly abashed confession to his superior officer that he can't wear civilian clothes in front of the military-hating Spanish population because he doesn't own any civilian clothes is easily my favorite single beat in the entire film - and while he's playing approximately the same character as Nick in Metropolitan, it's done so well in both cases that I don't want to complain. If only small '90s indies were like '40s studio-system pictures, we could even say that Eigeman had a star persona.

Anyway, after establishing these characters and having a lark with the way they speak, Stillman spends the back half of the movie trying very sincerely to expand upon his style, watching as these pointedly stiff, self-aware figures are batted by a real world that doesn't like them and that they can't control, and while the ultimate direction of the story continues to feel contrived and artificial even by Stillman's heightened standards, I admire the ambition of it. There is again, in all of this, a curious and pleasing tension between the filmmaker's awareness that his characters are in certain ways self-deluding and too anxious to separate themselves from life, and his very strong affection for them and forgiveness; even more than in Metropolitan, one senses that in part, Stillman likes these cousins because they are sort of alienating, broken people, not despite it. And that extends, I think, to the manner in which they do and do not stand in for the United States as a whole: while owning that his country is a bit arrogant and clueless, Stillman is still right in there defending its honor against the criticisms that he experienced himself in Barcelona before the end of the Cold War, the "wrong" criticisms of America instead of the "right" ones. It's never a political screed more than it is a character piece, not even as the characters get increasingly buried in politics; but on both the personal and national level Barcelona is saying the same thing - I get to poke fun because I am doing it out of love. If that leaves the movie with a certain America First-ness that I'm a little discomfited by, it's worth reiterating that the main thing here is love, and that even more than Metropolitan, Barcelona oozes affection for its subjects, and that carries it through even the weaker character moments and the more jarring shifts of narrative and tone.

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