Wednesday, October 20, 2010

"Barcelona" (1994)

**It's "Whit Stillman Week" at the Worthy of Note blog.  Enjoy this review of “Barcelona” which is rarer (but paradoxically considered more popular) than the other two films.**

“Barcelona” is the second of Whit Stillman’s three ‘Doomed Bourgeois in Love’ art-house films, and it is a very different sort of creature than “Metropolitan” or “The Last Days of Disco.” It is less sedentary than the former, less exuberant than the latter. Its themes are far removed from either of its fellows as well: the primary subject is beauty and love, as opposed to truth or virtue, though the film also touches peripheral questions of tradition, initiative and prudence.

Directed by Whit Stillman, starring Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman.
Content warning: some scenes with sexual content, mild language, and drug use.
The film begins with a montage of scenes that introduce us to the setting – Barcelona, the last days of the Cold War – and to the primary themes of the film. A suave European admires his lady in the mirror, complimenting her figure: “perfecto.” Trade fair girls, dressed in red, walk primly down the streets of Barcelona, admiring friends and glaring at strangers. A bomb blasts away the windows of an American library. The pursuit of beauty, the question of friendship and love, and the phenomenon of anti-Americanism – these are the key and recurring motifs.

We meet Ted, an introspective and soft-spoken salesman with the Illinois High-Speed Motorway Racing Company, whose inner monologue serves as our narrator. The other main character is his cousin Fred, a very outspoken American officer who is in Barcelona as the advance man for the Sixth Fleet. Fred is oblivious to others’ feelings, but remarkably sensitive to his own: he is both self-conscious and easily offended. Where Ted has trouble acting on thoughts and feelings, Fred has trouble not doing so. Fred is almost invariably impulsive. He takes other people’s stuff almost without a thought: “borrowing” the consul’s high-quality wine, and leaving IOUs for money taken from Ted’s safe at home. This gets him into significant trouble later on.

At the start of the film, Ted is recovering from a deep funk, ostensibly from a bad breakup with the sight-unseen Betty, but more accurately because he is essentially rootless. Tradition is key to understanding this film, as in “Metropolitan.” The early discussion about the Sexual Revolution and the promiscuity of Spanish girls touches this theme early on: “The Sexual Revolution really affected these girls. It turned their world upside down.” Fred offers the (all too common) counter-argument: “Don’t you think it’s possible that the world was upside down before, and now is right side up?” Ted pauses, and responds simply: “No, I don’t think that.”

Ted has tried to craft his own tradition, drawing from his sales background, from the literature of self-improvement (Franklin, Emerson, Carnegie, and Bettger) and from religious sources. In one scene of muted hilarity, Fred catches him dancing alone in his apartment to swing music while reading Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. “What are you, an adherent of some weird Glenn Miller based religious ceremony?” Ted responds: “No, Presbyterian.” “Presbyterian?” “Well, Protestant, then.” Fred’s girlfriend asks: “Protestant churches are like these?” Fred replies: “Pretty much.” Putting aside the veiled critique of Protestantism, the dialogue confirms that Ted is trying to identify with a tradition, even while remaining ignorant of what that tradition actually is.

The central statement of this theme comes immediately after this scene. Ted is railing against his cousin for spreading rumors among the trade fair girls of his sexual fetishism. Fred replies: “You are far weirder than someone into S&M. At least they have a tradition! You have no tradition. We have movies and books describing what S&M is about; I have nothing telling me what you are!” Ted is stung, but must recognize the truth behind the words. In an world “turned upside down” by sexual liberation and socialist influences, it is ironically those former bastions of tradition that are the least recognizable as such. In a society without faith, religion is as great an innovation as atheism would have been in the staunchly Catholic Middle Ages.

Moving on from the question of tradition, let us now treat the issue of love. After his break-up with Betty, Ted realizes that his infatuation with her beauty had ruined their potential friendship. In one of the more delightful lines of the film, he tells Fred: “I’m beginning to reconsider my attitude toward female beauty. I think it’s very bad.” Fred mocks him for this, and for his resolution to “only date plain or homely girls,” but that doesn’t stop Fred from using it to his own advantage later. When they stumble across girls en route to a party, Fred maneuvers to ride with the one who looks like she stepped out of a fairy tale. Ted is left with the two girls who look like hags or witches from said fairy tale. Yet he hits it off with one of them – Aurora – and she invites him to a concert.

The concert is a disappointment: Ted thought it would feature Lionel Hampton (and thus, jazz) but he had only misheard her say “Vinyl” Hampton (a cacophonous atonal mess). Moreover, the lady never even showed, but Ted manages to enjoy the evening with her replacement, Montserrat (who is, ironically, gorgeous). And then he falls in love with her.

There is a five-second snippet of film that really struck me. Ted narrates: “Everything was completely different now.” On screen, however, we only see Ted walking alone down the same semi-deserted street we had seen earlier in the film. Nothing had changed, but everything was different all the same. Profundity ensued.

The next scene reveals that perhaps Ted had merely fallen in love with the idea of Montserrat, the fantasy of looking into her eyes and seeing her soul. Certainly he is disconcerted the next morning when he learns that she tells him about her old flame Ramon, who had seduced her when she was 16… and then reveals that they never broke up, that she’s living with him though they consider it an ‘open relationship.’ At this discovery, Ted’s flabber is properly ghasted.

The two cousins soon meet Ramon at a party. He is a journalist, who holds that “all the old gods are dead… but in beauty” (specifically “of the female face and form”) “the memory of divinity remains.” We realize that it was he at the beginning of the film, examining a woman in a mirror and exclaiming “perfecto.” Yet that image itself contains the germ of criticism, that his ideal beauty is strangely flat: he will not admire a woman unless it is to a reflection, even when the woman is in front of him. He cannot withstand the three-dimensional complexity of a real female, and must reduce her to two dimensions before he recognizes her beauty.

Yet in addition to this strange naïveté, Ramon remains a smug playboy, who invents stories to fuel the anti-American fire. He speaks with hilarious ignorance of the “AFL-CIA,” and how the U.S. came to Europe to crush the progressive labor movement under the Marshall plan. He claimed that the recent USO bombing (depicted shortly before) had been a CIA pretext for the Sixth Fleet’s planned invasion of Barcelona, as the bombing of the “Maine” had heralded the Spanish-American War.

Ted is angered by Ramon, and tries to persuade Montserrat to leave him and move in with Ted. However, after a disastrous picnic in which Ted tries to explain U.S. foreign policy by analogy to ants and is spectacularly misunderstood, Montserrat leaves with Ramon and spends the night with him. It turns out that Fred had planted the seeds of their breakup by implying that Ted was looking to marry – which, for a sexually liberated girl in Spain, was just plain weird. “I think it is fascist for a man to immediately talk about marrying a woman he likes." Fred responses with some bemusement: “I don't think Ted is a fascist of the marrying type.”

Fred had also planted the seeds of his own undoing by lying to his girlfriend about working for the CIA, which she had passed on to Ramon and Ramon had published in his paper. At the same time, Ted discovers that his safe had been emptied, and he blames Fred (who he knew had taken money from it earlier). Fred is booted unceremoniously from the house, and goes to his girlfriend Marta’s house to find other accommodations. It turns out that she’s the cheating kleptomaniac herself – Fred finds her sleeping with another man, with envelopes of money stolen from Ted. Fred leaves her house distraught, repeating the self-improvement mantras he had earlier mocked, only to be shot by a motorcyclist on the way home.

Fred is taken to the hospital and remains in a coma for most of the rest of the film. Ted had heard that the sound of voices might speed recovery, and so maintains a constant vigil in Fred’s room, reading books aloud to him. At first, only Aurora shows up, with her friend Greta, to help care for Fred. When Marta finally does show up, it is to demand the money Fred had on him, which he had taken from her apartment… and so Ted learns that Marta had stolen the money, and Fred had been on his way to return it.

Over the course of the next few days and weeks, Ted and Greta grow quite close. At one point, he asks for her to leave so he could pray for Fred; she mishears him, however, and gets on her knees beside him to join him in prayer. The two bond over books, art, faith, and a shared loathing of Ramon. But the moment is lost when Montserrat arrives and makes her excuses.

Fred does recover: he wakes up to hear Ted praying for him, and exclaims “Give me a break!” The rest of the film fairly flies by: Ted anxiously awaits the arrival of the firm’s Chicago-based marketing manager, thinking he’ll be fired, only to learn that the CEO is dying and that Ted will be groomed to replace him. In the course of narrating his now-frequent trips to Chicago, Ted mentions his impending marriage, though the lady isn’t mentioned. The film settles back in Barcelona, on the wedding day. Fred reveals to Ted that he’s fallen in love with a girl, but is following Ted’s advice and taking is “really cool.” At that moment, Ramon appears and offers a faux-apology for the article that had gotten Fred shot, but does offer to make it up to Fred. Fred takes him on the offer, though we don’t see how.

The final scene is set in Chicago, where Ted, Fred and Dick (the marketing manager) are grilling hamburgers for the Spanish girls, who soon discover that American hamburgers are much better than the European kind. Ted gets in the final word on anti-Americanism: “See, we’re not such idiots.” However, our attention is mostly focused on the outcome of the love-and-beauty plot, which more closely resembles the end of a Shakespeare romantic comedy. Ted is now married to Greta! Fred is dating Montserrat – she was the girl he’d fallen for, and Fred must have asked Ramon to give her up so he could date her. Even Dick gets in the game, and is now dating Aurora!

Although… Dick is somewhat confused about something Aurora said, about leather underwear and weekends of fun. We realize that Ted had pranked Dick with the same story Fred had used much earlier on him. This is a bit of a cathartic moment, as we realize that Ted is finally a bit more confident and comfortable in his own shoes, while Fred has become a bit more reflective. Both cousins had learned from each other, and realized the virtues that the other’s personality had reflected. In Stillman’s world, the greatest victory is to learn those virtues that come least naturally to you, and by that calculation the cousins’ victories are great indeed.

“Barcelona” is a quick-paced film in which very little happens, at least by the standards of more conventional films. It is a profound contemplation of love and beauty… that is by the same token quite muted in its emotional impact. It is a mess of contradictions, yet cohesive despite them, or perhaps even because of them. Stillman is a master at making you think, and by that measure this is a brilliant film indeed.

Favorite quotes (besides the ones written above):
-    “Self-affirmation is great in theory, but whenever I try to put it in practice I get really depressed."
-    “The United States is like the ant farm of the world…. But no one in Europe can observe the ants directly.  They must rely on journalists and reporters to describe the ants. The problem is that those people all seem to hate ants.”
-    “Literary critics are always talking about the subtext, which seems to be the hidden meaning of the book. But no one talks about the meaning that isn’t hidden, the meaning that’s right on the surface… what do you call that?” “The text?” “Right, nobody talks about that."

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