Whit Stillman’s “Barcelona” (1994)

Notable Festivals: London, Stockholm

Independent Spirit Award Wins: Best Cinematography

Inducted Into the Criterion Collection: 2016

After the breakout success of Whit Stillman’s METROPOLITAN in 1990, speculation naturally turned to what he would do as a follow-up.  Following up on his debut film’s slightly-autobiographical bent, Stillman drew inspiration from his time spent in Spain as a film sales agent.  In 1994, that experience abroad would inform his second film, a romantic comedy set in Spain during the turbulent days of a waning Cold War, titled BARCELONA.

As I wrote previously, I had come into the study of Stillman’s filmography completely blind– that is, I had never seen a film of his before in my life.  Having enjoyed (but not being bowled over by) METROPOLITAN, I was very pleasantly surprised to find an energy and exotic air of mystique around BARCELONA.  It’s arguably better than his debut, but funnily enough, it has proven to be unfairly overlooked in recent years.

BARCELONA follows Ted (Taylor Nichols), a socially awkward young American who lives in Barcelona because his job at a large US corporation sent him to run their outpost there.  As it is the closing days of the Cold War, Ted lives quietly and discreetly amidst strong anti-American and NATO sentiments vehemently expressed by the city’s youth.  One day, his cousin Fred (Chris Eigeman), a US Navy officer, arrives unexpectedly for a visit and ends up staying for a few months.  As the months go on, both men find themselves falling for the same girl, while the tide of anti-American contempt across the city grows and focuses in on them.

For his leads, Stillman recycles two of the most memorable cast members from METROPOLITAN: Eigeman and Nichols.  Eschewing the nerdy glasses but keeping the nebbish, stuttering demeanor, Nichols carries the film as a focused, uptight American in a strange land.  Despite his anti-social quirks and general blandness, he’s mostly likeable.  His character is not altogether too different from his character in METROPOLITAN, but Nichols adds the gravitas and depth of an older, more experienced person.  The always-watchable Eigeman is also not dissimilar from his METROPOLITAN counterpart, save for his military decorum and sense of national pride.  He’s outspoken, but not entirely cynical.  As in Stillman’s first film, Eigeman is given the lion’s share of snappy lines, providing the film with a snarky wit and attitude.

As for the ladies, Tushka Bergen is effective as the boys’ mutual romantic interest, Montserrat.  Bergen carries herself like a woman twice her age.  A young Mira Sorvino plays Marta Ferrer, a sexually adventurous beauty that the two cousins also lust over.  Funnily enough, I didn’t even recognize that it was Sorvino until halfway through the movie.  She assimilates so effectively into the Spanish cultural landscape, you’d never know she actually hails from New Jersey.  Great casting on Stillman’s part.

Working again with Director of Photography John Thomas, Stillman creates a similar look to METROPOLITAN, but plays it out on a larger canvas.  The image is composed of warm, natural colors and high contrast.  The color palette is similar to METROPOLITAN’s, only more vivid.  Camerawork is mostly locked-off and favors wide compositions and strategic closeups.  Stillman also utilizes diagonal depth in his framing, which feels admittedly more natural here than it did in METROPOLITAN.  BARCELONA is by no means a flashy film, but Stillman embraces the colorful Spanish culture and renders it in understated ways.

Mark Suozzo returns to score BARCELONA, infusing Stillman’s classical sensibilities with the spicy salsa of Spain.  It’s worth noting that there are significantly more source tracks that pepper the piece, mostly European pop songs of the 60’s and 70’s.  There’s also a fair amount of American disco tracks, which foreshadow Stillman’s preoccupation with the genre as a subject he’d explore in 1998’s THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO.

Stillman shows considerable growth as a filmmaker, expanding the scope of his story and imbuing his comedy of manners with political and revolutionary intrigue.  The first shot of the film is an exploding building, and Stillman uses that both as a way to distinctly establish the cultural mood of his setting as well as generate a sustained suspense that lurks at the edges of every frame.  Like METROPOLITAN, much of the dialogue still gives way to philosophical and cultural debate, but it’s given a narrative urgency by the looming youth rebellion.  Like an organ transplant being rejected by its host body, the Americans in BARCELONA spend the film slowly realizing that the city is turning on them and wants them out.

This being my second time viewing a Stillman film, I’m beginning to recognize distinct stylistic traits of his.  For instance, Stillman seems to begin each of his films with minimal, formalistic opening credits set to classical music.  The font is usually stylized and is always a shade of yellow (which I suspect influenced Wes Anderson in his own distinctive lettering style), and more notably, Stillman never gives himself his own card for his directing credit.  The credit is always shared on-screen with other collaborators.  It’s a subtle way of acknowledging that his team’s contributions are just as important as his own.  Stillman also seems to make frequent use of fade-in’s and fade-out’s as scene transitions.  This positions his directorial style as more akin to live theatre, with his focus on dialogue over action.  Fades are a distinct transition native to theatre, and Stillman uses them in film as a way to both refresh the story and indicate that some time has passed.  All that being said, these observations only come from his first two films, and at the time of this writing, I have no idea if Stillman will continue this established style in later films.

In summary, BARCELONA is a strong follow-up to METROPOLITAN in every way, and in many instances betters its predecessor.  It hasn’t gotten a particularly large amount of love in the home video arena, and as such it’s unfairly become Stillman’s most over-looked film.  This is most likely because BARCELONA is distributed by Warner Bros, who are notorious for not paying much attention to most of their catalog titles and refuse the licensing of such works to independent labels who would (read: The Criterion Collection).  Here’s hoping that Criterion’s recent acquistion of a few select Warner Bros catalog titles yields BARCELONA the treatment it deserves.

BARCELONA is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via The Criterion Collection.