Several people walked out of the Barcelona screening I attended. I could only assume they disliked the talkiness and slow pace of this mild comedy of manners, which recounts the romantic adventures of a couple of Americans living abroad in the early 80s. There's a fine touch of irony to this, since the film amounts to a defense of, or at least an affectionate, sympathetic nod to, America's "hamburger" culture--the consumerism, the 80 cable channels and so forth. It's that very culture that rejects this sort of movie. Barcelona, the second feature by writer-director Whit Stillman (I missed the first, Metropolitan), is talky and deliberately paced. But the talkiness does not keep the film from visual elegance, nor does the leisurely pace mean boredom or minimal reward. On the contrary, it's one of the season's funnier films, and it's quite lovely to look at--John Thomas' cinematography is gorgeous. The central character is Ted (Taylor Nichols), a high-level sales rep for a Chicago-based firm living in the title city in, as one of the film's frequent, deadpan subtitles puts it, "the final decade of the Cold War." Because of strong anti-American and anti-NATO feelings in Spain, Ted's cousin Fred (Chris Eigeman), a Naval officer, has been sent to Barcelona to coordinate with the U.S. Consul's Office in preparation for the upcoming landing of the Sixth Fleet. What this means to Ted is an irritating houseguest of indefinite tenure, during which each becomes involved with a beautiful Spanish woman (Tushka Bergen and Mira Sorvino, respectively).
Last week, I wrote about My Life's in Turnaround, a low-budget slacker comedy co-written and co-directed by its two stars, who hobbled their own considerable promise as a comedy team by placing themselves in an overly self-referential context--they played fledgling filmmakers struggling to finance a project. Barcelona, though admittedly a very different film, also hinges on the comic interplay between a pair of frustrated, self-centered, white, patrician twentysomethings. But they're placed in a larger social context, where their situation has some meaning. It still seems like upper-class wanking, but it isn't romanticized.
In spite of his admiration for the self-improvement literature of business, Ted is a morose, dejected defeatist since a recent breakup. He's disillusioned by his fixation on female beauty to the point that he's begun to absurdly sentimentalize plain women as "soulful." To his embarrassment, he's also become religious, albeit furtively so--he hides his Bible in a copy of The Economist when in company, but when alone, he reads Proverbs and Ecclesiastes while dancing to Glenn Miller's "Pennsylvania 6-5000." Fred, who identifies this activity as normal Presbyterian behavior to his Spanish girlfriend when they catch Ted at it, is apparently embarrassed by nothing. The night he arrives, while Ted is showing him the town, some street kids call him a fascist because of the full-dress Navy uniform he's unwisely wearing, and he can't let go of it--he keeps noting that "men who wore this uniform died ridding Europe of fascism."
Fred's gung-ho attitudes are mocked, but gently. Stillman could probably have scored more Brownie points with the art-house audience in this country (and others) had he made Fred an all-out caricature of cloddish, Reagan-era zealotry. Instead, he lets you see that Fred has a point--it's just a point that was of steadily decreasing relevance to Europe in the 80s. Fred's aggressively wrong-headed refusal to grasp how anyone might question the motives of the U.S. is both hilarious and maddening. Yet his refusal to take the advice of everyone from Ted to the beleaguered consul (Jack Gilpin) and ignore the Yankee-go-home sentiments that are all around him has the effect of making him seem less condescending than the other characters, thus more attractive. He pays for his brashness.
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Stillman's sensibility, both as writer and as director, is superficially much closer to Ted than to Fred--quiet, thoughtful, elliptical. It might seem overly precious and flippant, but Stillman gives it a shadow. There's a great moment midfilm that sums up Barcelona at its best--we're shown a prettily composed still life of Ted's living room, while down the street, we hear the blast of an anti-NATO terrorist's bomb. The shot is packed with both gentility and danger; it's funny and chilling at the same time, and is over so quickly that it becomes part of the film's fabric rather than a laboriously italicized "touch." Barcelona is most likable because it transcends politics without being willfully simpleminded. Given a sense of humor and perspective, a liberal or a conservative could laugh equally hard at it, in the same places, for the same reasons. The value of a film like this shouldn't be underestimated.