Four years after his distinctive debut feature, “Metropolitan,” Whit Stillman has delivered a superior follow-up in “Barcelona.” A verbal tale of two well-spoken young American men posted in the beautiful seaport city during what is described as “the last decade of the Cold War,” sophisticated picture possesses a strong authorial voice and an appealing intelligence in its handling of affairs of the heart and its Yanks-abroad theme. By, about and for thoughtful people interested in culture and politics, film will need strong reviews and strategic launch by Fine Line to get past no-name cast and director’s limited profile.
But late-July release could be a shrewd move to capture the interest of discriminating urban viewers starved for some substance after two months of big-budget summer fare. After just two Cannes market screenings, pic had its official world preem June 12 at the Seattle Film Festival.
In a sensual, Old World setting rocked by sporadic violence directed at such U.S.-identified targets as the American Library, IBM and the USO, the somewhat priggish Ted (Taylor Nichols) nonetheless lives a charmed existence as a sales rep for an American company.
His social life is filled with delightful, beautifully attired “trade fair girls” who overflow a seemingly endless round of parties, and Ted’s only problem is an inclination toward undue seriousness that prevents him from enjoying the city’s pleasure-oriented lifestyle as much as he should.
Hobbled by no such handicaps is his cousin Fred (Chris Eigeman), a U.S. Navy officer who suddenly turns up and camps out in Ted’s apartment. With his loud, obnoxious ways and patriotic views, Fred could easily be written off as a typical Ugly American, but he quickly shows himself to be considerably more complex than that. Stillman sets up a temperamental opposition between the two men, who have been antagonistic with each other since they were boys Stateside.
Pleasing his cousin with the news that young Spanish women are promiscuous, Ted nonetheless announces that, tired of being a slave to his obsession with physical beauty, he will henceforth go out only with plain girls, and won’t sleep with anyone until he’s found Miss Right.
Those vows last only until he meets Montserrat (Tushka Bergen), a somewhat sullen blonde who dates Ted but continues to see a virulently anti-U.S. Spanish b.f.
Latter provides one of many doors into what is perhaps the film’s most singular achievement, the portrayal of the manifold ways — from subtle to overt — in which anti-American sentiments were vented overseas during a certain period in the ’70s and ’80s.
This line of inquiry may be of limited interest to international viewers, and even to domestic audiences, but Stillman is clearly gripped by the subject and integrates it into his dramatic material in an impressively detailed way that feels fresh in a fictional narrative context.
Fred explodes when Spaniards, seeing him in uniform, scorn him as a fascist, as if they didn’t know their own history, and can barely contain himself when one professes to speak knowledgeably of the evils of the “AFL-CIA.”
With the Sixth Fleet treading water nearby, however, some locals feel they have just cause for complaint, and Fred himself becomes the victim of a terrorist act. Ted’s hospital vigil during his cousin’s life-and-death struggle unexpectedly provides the stage for further romantic developments, and an epilogue rounds out the loose ends in satisfactory fashion.
After examining the rarefied world of debutante socialites with wit and obvious expertise in “Metropolitan,” Stillman opens up his artistic universe a bit more here and displays an increased ease with filmmaking craft.
Main problem with his first film was a real stiffness in the direction that made it rely almost exclusively on the dialogue and subject matter for its effect. Stillman seems much more comfortable with the visual side of things this time out, as he and lenser John Thomas (one of several “Metropolitan” teammates, along with editor Chris Tellefsen and composer Mark Suozzo, to repeat here) adroitly convey the Barcelona an everyday resident would experience.
Abundant dialogue is tart, informed, often droll and as opinionated as real conversation. Pic’s almost extreme literary quality and expatriate characters make one feel that Stillman could be a spiritual brother to the Lost Generation of 1920s writers. The arch, old-school way his Americans speak takes a little getting used to and may simply sound stilted to some viewers.
Nichols and Eigeman, both from “Metropolitan,” seem right at home in Stillman’s world, and make their not always easy characters grow on one as things proceed. Supporting cast of many women and a few men is marked by a nice variety of types.
The lovely settings and intelligent company make “Barcelona” a welcome place to spend some time. Action sags somewhat in the stretch shortly before the attack on Fred, indicating that a little pruning could make a sharp film even better.