Barcelona: Innocence Abroad

On Film / Essays — Apr 19, 2016

At first glance, Whit Stillman’s second film, 1994’s Barcelona, seems a loose sequel to his critically and cultishly lauded 1990 debut, Metropolitan, a transplantation to Spain of the two most vivid characters and actors from the earlier work: the stammering intellectual played by Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman’s suave and charismatically patronizing socialite. Cast now as the rhyming yet temperamentally irreconcilable cousins Ted and Fred Boynton, Nichols and Eigeman are locked in a comically bickering relationship defined by the witty, often circular repartee that remains Stillman’s indelible signature. Yet by relocating his actors to Spain, Stillman marked more than a simple geographical distance from their earlier roles as Manhattan sophisticates. For although the cousins are still of the same “urban haute bourgeoisie,” in a phrase awkwardly coined by Nichols in Metropolitan, they are now also members of that storied caste of Americans abroad, forced by their expatriate circumstance to exemplify the distinct American idiom and the worldview revealed in their bewilderment by Spanish mores and eagerness to explain their country’s oversize influence and rapacious appetite for television and hamburgers. Equally befuddled by the sexual openness of Spanish women and the constant invective they hear against U.S. foreign policy, the cousins together embody a certain naïveté that, like Mark Twain before him, Stillman declares to be a quintessential American quality and flaw.

The loss of innocence is, in fact, a central theme of Stillman’s auto­biographically inspired Doomed Bourgeois in Love series, comprising—in order of their historical moments—Metropolitan, 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, and Barcelona. In essence, each film is a coming-of-age story chronicling a reluctant passage for its heroes, from the precocious undergraduates in Metropolitan clinging to their last debutante ball season, and the vertigo of the young, urban, almost professionals as they stand before the corporate ladder in The Last Days of Disco, to the cousins’ stumbling path toward matrimony in Barcelona. Thrust rudely into the world, Stillman’s characters continue to linger awkwardly on the threshold of an adulthood that the films describe as just another long stage of arrested development. The childlike qualities of Stillman’s characters are epitomized by the constant squabbling of Barcelona’s cousins—Fred taunts Ted with the juvenile nickname Crusty Fusty, they argue about Fred’s sinking of Ted’s beloved kayak, back when they were ten years old. But the cousins’ immaturity is given a further and almost existential weight by their anxiety over things done and left undone by absent father figures, with Fred lamenting that his own father did not teach him to shave correctly, while Ted worries that he may have lost the respect of his much older boss and mentor back in Chicago.

The slow coming-of-age captured in each of the films in Stillman’s trilogy is, however, directly and poetically tied to its specific time and place. Indeed, the difficult life transitions endured by the characters pointedly echo the crepuscular, fin de siècle “last days” of those fragile floating worlds the films so affectionately describe: the after-parties of Manhattan debutante society in Metropolitan, the dwindling New York club scene in The Last Days of Disco, and, in Barcelona, the “last decade of the Cold War” announced by an introductory title card. The extreme attention devoted by the films to the myriad details of their characters’ appearances and self-presentation—and especially to their speech and clothing—gives an almost documentary quality to Stillman’s portraits of eras almost gone. The fastidious preening and precise banter about dress and Great Literature that recur in Metropolitan, for example, are thus part of a careful and comic ethnography that both dutifully records and gently pokes fun at the socialites’ anachronistic pageantry of privilege.

While Barcelona gives similarly close scrutiny to the self-conscious speech and dress of its characters, the film’s European setting further estranges and brings new meaning to the habits of these Americans, drawing comic attention, for instance, to the boyish tone of Ted’s colloquialisms—“sacking out” for going to sleep, “shacking up” for cohabiting—as inflections lost in their Spanish translation. Like the black-tied and taffetaed socialites in Metropolitan, the characters in Barcelona are immediately associated with class and profession through iconic clothing—Ted’s natty Brooks Brothers suits, Fred’s U.S. Navy uniform, not to mention the matching scarlet ensembles worn by the Spanish “trade-fair girls.” Yet like Ted’s awkwardly translated American slang, the uniforms worn in Barcelona are denaturalized, playfully revealed as cultural symbols, as in the early scene where Fred readily accepts a spontaneous invitation to a dance party issued on the false assumption that his military attire is a costume. The navy uniform as patriotic emblem is again placed into comic question later on, when Fred undercuts his own pontification that “men wearing this uniform died ridding Europe of fascism” by admitting that he dresses as a sailor offshore simply because he did not pack any decent civilian clothing.

The unstable meaning of dress and appearance in Barcelona is part of a larger but purposefully oblique questioning of the Cold War ur-narrative by Stillman’s film. Thus, while the cousins’ business and military uniforms offer fleeting allusions to the atavistic archetypes of the Quiet and the Ugly American, the film diffuses such symbolism by reducing Fred’s uniform to a costume. And in a corollary scene, Fred borrows his cousin’s staid and preppy suits only to be compli­mented by his Spanish girlfriend as looking “very New Wave.” The assassination attempt against Fred offers a far graver instance of this same unmooring of the Cold War imagination, with the character being mistakenly targeted because of a joke he made, in evident bad taste, that leads others to believe he is a CIA spy. Together with the bombing of the American Library that opens Barcelona, the bullet that partially blinds Eigeman’s naval officer gives a pointed reminder of the broader historical context that Stillman’s self-absorbed characters, and his films themselves, only partially engage, much like the specter of AIDS that hovers over The Last Days of Disco. In so deflecting, however, Stillman does not shy away from his films’ often urgent contexts but instead upholds the same stubborn innocence that their self-absorbed heroes embody. The discrete charm and frisson of Stillman’s comedy rests on his almost alchemical ability to transform the trivial into the profound—the razor commercial that triggers Fred’s self-questioning, the meditation on love and loyalty inspired by Lady and the Tramp in The Last Days of Disco, Eigeman’s character’s declamation on detachable collars and generational barbarism in Metropolitan—while distilling the transformational historical moments and genres evoked in his films into poignantly fleeting essences.

The Cold War espionage thriller is just one of the many genres and modes of cinema subtly referenced in Barcelona and that comparatively define Stillman’s distinct brand of comedy. The film’s opening sequence is a first instance, with its bold montage of the American Library bombing and implicating shot of two scantily clad figures, Ramón and Mira Sorvino’s winsome Marta, both seated, postcoitally, one assumes, before a bedroom mirror. Immediately recalling Almodóvar with its provocative linkage of the political and the overtly sexual, the montage teasingly points toward another means of filmmaking completely distinct, stylistically and thematically, from Stillman’s. The figure of Ted, meanwhile, is clearly cousin to one of the deliciously tortured heroes of Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales. Indeed, Ted’s search in the Bible for a moral code and means of philosophizing his “romantic illusion problem,” and his agonized indecision between “homely” and beautiful women, draws him strikingly close to Jean-Louis Trintignant in My Night at Maud’s. One could also find within Barcelona the influence of Dreyer’s Ordet, in the scene of Fred’s “resurrection” during Ted’s earnest prayer.

In the end, however, the film holds up these different modes of European art cinema only to gently refuse them. Barcelona deliberately defuses the Cold War narrative with gentle humor, allowing the Spanish villain and most blatant anti-American, Ramón, to sincerely apologize for his role in Fred’s wounding and help Fred court his would-be wife. In the same way, Stillman uses comic twists to overturn the different narrative logics of Rohmer’s eroticized ratiocination by setting Ted’s diligent Bible study to big-band music that carries him into a goofy solo dance number, while also cancelling any sense of Dreyer’s lush spirituality by having Fred awaken hurling petulant words at his cousin. In each case, Stillman invents comic situations that draw deeply from the quintessentially American well of the classical Hollywood comedy, seizing inspiration from the polished screwball of Sturges, the subversive antics of Tashlin, the acid wit of Wilder.

But unlike the postmodern vision of traditional film genres shared by such contemporaries of his as the Coen brothers or Quentin Tarantino, Stillman turns to comedy not as a debased, tired, or parodic form in need of reinvention but as itself a means of sincere reconciliation and renewal. Following Stanley Cavell, Stillman embraces romantic comedy as a philosophically grounded genre driven toward a Shakespearean restoration of order and community. Happily quoting the double-marriage ending of a thirties screwball comedy, Barcelona closes with a return to the U.S. by its heroes, now joined by their Spanish brides at a lakeside barbecue, their faith in the power of love and the hamburger a gently absurd yet innocent affirmation of comedy as a fundamentally utopian and American imagination.