I originally planned on skipping Barcelona in my perusal of Criterion’s Whit Stillman trilogy, going directly from Metropolitan to The Last Days of Disco (if you call a three year gap “direct”). But it’s another year later and and I felt guilty ignoring the middle child. Plus, on paper, you gotta admit it sounds like Stillman made all the right moves in conceptualizing his sophomore effort. He teamed up with a studio, doubled down on stars Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman, and branched out into a more exotic locale that still drew from his personal experiences. Sounds great, right? Yeah, I mean, pretty much. I had a good time.
Ted (Taylor Nichols) is a salesman for a Chicago company that has him based in Barcelona “sometime during the last decade of the Cold War.” For what it’s worth, the real-world events depicted have Wikipedia pin this down at exactly 1987. Ted’s neurotic anxiety about being a salesman and trying to date Spanish women takes a massive spike when his cousin, Fred (Chris Eigeman), unexpectedly starts crashing in Ted’s apartment. Fred is a naval officer who has been sent to Barcelona ostensibly to help manage public relations ahead of the American fleet’s imminent arrival. While Ted and Fred are obsessed with their careers, we barely ever see them actually working. Instead, as is Whit Stillman tradition, we spend most of our time watching them hanging out and clubbing.
Barcelona is very barely a love triangle movie, as the cousins’ frequenting of a local bar gets them involved with a group of trade fair girls, which I think is a much nicer term then the embarrassing one I remember hearing growing up: booth babes. Fred enters into a relationship with Marta (Mira Sorvino) pretty quickly, while Ted deliberately tries to date the woman he’s least attracted to, Aurora (Nuria Badia). But don’t worry, when Aurora doesn’t show up on a date (because she fell in love with someone else) she sends Montserrat (Tushka Bergen), and in no time Ted is imagining marrying her. There’s just one problem: Montserrat lives with a man, Ramon (Pep Munné), and even though they’ve agreed to date other people, they still love each other. Oh, and also Fred may be in love with Montserrat too. He’s not sure, but doesn’t want to be denied the opportunity to find out.
One aspect of Barcelona I absolutely adored was the amount of comedy it wrings out of the idea of two American expats who feel compelled to be patriotic at a time when public opinion in Spain had turned against the U.S. pretty harshly. Being around the end of the Cold War, this was a time when Americans were seen as fascistic morons who know nothing of foreign affairs because they’re too busy eating burgers and shooting each other. Boy, I sure am glad things have gotten better for our rep these last 35 years! It’s seems quite likely this is derived from Whit Stillman’s own experiences working as a salesman for American Spanish-language TV in Madrid and Barcelona around the time the movie is set.
Now that I’ve seen this whole Criterion box set, I still have mixed feelings about Whit Stillman’s films. These three movies are so droll, so eminently quotable, such a delightful font of Chris Eigeman, who I adore. On the other hand, the comedy is so dry that I end up parched each time. I yearn for some slapstick. And it bothers me that I do, it makes me feel insecure or dumb. Maybe I just came to Stillman too old and too jaded about the upper class? Maybe if I had seen these movies when I was younger, when I was getting into Wes Anderson, the one director I must compare Stillman to every time, I’d feel different. Who knows, I can only reflect on this exchange from the film: