Thursday, April 5, 2012

Barcelona Movie Review

Whit Stillman’s Metropolitandrew on his own experiences going to debutante balls and hobnobbing with wealthy socialites. His second film, Barcelona, similarly drew on his own life, this time mining the time he spent living abroad. Ted and Fred Boynton are cousins who share Ted’s apartment for a short time when Fred turns up unexpectedly as part of a Navy advance man ahead of the arrival of the Sixth Fleet’s shore leave. Ted works for an American company out of their Barcelona office. Fred is a brash outspoken American who vehemently defends the United States’ honor against the frequent verbal abuse levied by Spanish locals. Ted is a bit more reserved, though no less a patriot, and versed in some of the subtleties of Spanish culture.


Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman play Ted and Fred respectively. Both are veterans of Metropolitan and the best actors from that ensemble, making it no surprise that Stillman cast them again. Barcelona is a romantic comedy at its core. But it is not the kind of rom-com you immediately recognize as such. This is a movie where the characters talk and talk and then talk some more. More happens in this film than in Metropolitan, but there is just as much conversation. And it’s such good conversation. Stillman continued to develop his style with this, his second screenplay. His dialogue is always smart and very often incredibly witty. Like his first film, this one caters to a certain demographic of reasonably well-educated viewers. The quips come quickly, the characters are erudite, use words that I might have to look up in a dictionary, and speak on subjects that make them sound like master’s students on topics ranging from philosophy to international relations.

One of Stillman’s common themes is his exploration of social structures, both in groups and couplings. Ted and Fred spend a good deal of time in bars and discos with other people. They also spend about an equal amount of time coupled up in relationships, including their relationship to each other – a familial relationship that is strained and at times downright antagonistic. Ted has a distrust of Fred that stems from an incident when they were ten years old and may involve Fred having stolen something. He occasionally ‘borrows’ money from Ted without asking while at the same time overstaying his welcome.

Ted and Fred are basic conservative types. Fred is a military conservative and Ted is an economic conservative and advocate for the free market philosophies of Carnegie and Emerson. These are two prime targets for the more socialist-minded Spaniards they mingle with. Fred is the more brash and boorish of the two while Ted is a little uptight. Fred has an unerring ability to completely embarrass his cousin.

They each find a bit of romance: Fred with Marta (Mira Sorvino); Ted with Montserrat (Tushka Bergen). Ted’s relationship with the very good looking Montserrat defies his own commitment to date only plain or homely girls in an effort to consider only someone’s personality in choosing a partner. This philosophy, spelled out in eloquent prose dialogue, is typical of a Whit Stillman character. The way Stillman has them negotiating their respective relationships make this unlike any romantic comedy you’ve probably seen. But in spite of their mannered elocution Fred and Ted are still just two young guys looking for love. They have feelings like anyone else and are thin skinned when it comes to the fairer sex. In that way the film is similar to Metropolitan, which was about a social group that neither I nor anyone I know is familiar with, and yet we are drawn into their world not by the specifics of their lives or how they communicate, but by the universality of love, rejection and pain.

One reason Barcelona speaks more strongly to me now than when I first saw it many years ago is that I have had the experience of living abroad – and in Spain to boot. One of the things Stillman tries to highlight is the animosity toward the United States by people in other countries. The setting is sometime in the early 1980s, a time when many local people resented the presence of a foreign military. Fred endures snide comments from passersby who see his Navy uniform. There’s insulting graffiti including the slogan “NATO no! Bases out,” which I saw and heard several times while living there. And then there’s Montserrat’s muckraking journalist boyfriend Ramone (Pep Munné) whose articles implicating Fred as a CIA spy lead to an incident that almost sends the film spiraling into the international political thriller genre. By including terrorist acts committed by anti-NATO thugs, Stillman gives this film a bit more weight than his first. He includes a bombing at the USO where a young soldier is killed and stages a dour scene with Ted and Fred waiting in a warehouse with the coffin until it is picked up for the trip home, but he stops just short of turning the whole film into melodrama. Some additional scenes depicting acts of violence were wisely left on the cutting room floor.

One thing you’ll find to be almost universally true if you spend any significant time abroad is that most of the people who have such strong negative opinions toward the United States also exhibit a stunning level of ignorance regarding the subject of their dislike. I love how Stillman makes this ignorance manifest in the Spaniards’ insistence that there exists a labor union known as the AFL-CIA (an idiotic conflation of the AFL-CIO trade union and the CIA spy organization) which is “widely known” to have been the driving force behind squashing worker uprisings around Europe in order to maintain its own hegemony overseas. This is a perfect example of something I personally experienced countless times living abroad: non-Americans who insist they know more about the United States than you do so they can further their theory that Americans are the true ignoramuses of the world. I especially like Ted’s summation of the problem of perception that Europeans have about Americans which goes something like this: they all know Americans love hamburgers; hamburgers in Europe are almost always terrible; this serves as an example of how stupid Americans are; if only these same critics would get the taste of a real American hamburger, they would understand. As a metaphor for foreign ignorance about American politics and culture this strikes me as beautiful perfection.

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