Dir. Whit Stillman. Starring Taylor Nichols, Chris Eigeman, Tushka Bergen
In the final act of Barcelona, before the rapid and dizzy epilogue that sees Ted (Nichols) married off and Fred (Eigeman) basically recovered, Ted has a moment when he realizes that he might have been wrong. I always assumed that Fred got bad grades on his college entrance exams because he was stupid, he says; at this point we have something like eighty minutes of movie proving that Fred is not the world’s brightest guy, and so we assumed right along with Ted. But, Ted says, Fred has always averred that a girl next to him was fiddling with her bra throughout the test, distracting him so much that he lost his place on the answer sheet. What if he was telling the truth? Ted says, truly moved by this realization that the world might be different than he’d imagined. He’s been given hints throughout the film that the world is not, in fact, like he has always supposed it to be; he’ll be given more, too. But this is a strange and unexpected moment in a Whit Stillman movie all the same. Where one expects bizarre monologues and arguments, or backhanded reasoning, or ironic distance, one tends to find a somewhat pensive mood instead. Every now and then you land on something—I highly recommend Fred’s deconstruction of The Graduate—but for the most part I think of this movie and its many fades to black, its occasional narration via Ted.
No one will ever confuse Metropolitan or The Last Days of Disco with The Sopranos, but Stillman’s characters, each presented in a distinctive all-caps penmanship, are as bad at changing themselves as Tony or Christopher or Uncle Junior were. Ted, a salesman whose vision of the job combines an elementary school performance of Death of a Salesman with a series of books about selling, is hardly the type who we’d think capable of finding a new way of seeing people. But there’s a reason that Ted, like Audrey of Metropolitan, shows up in The Last Days of Disco. The joke in that movie might be that Barcelona (like Barcelona, get it? hyuk hyuk) is “in human terms, pretty cold,” but that’s not true at all when Ted has his epiphany. It’s the most affirming moment of any of Stillman’s first three movies because it has nothing to do with money, or possession, or upward mobility. This is just for Ted, who is hardly a new man after this realization, but he is at least a little different.
Perhaps because the characters in Barcelona are less obviously well off than the ones in Last Days or especially Metropolitan, this is the movie where materialism gets its sharpest kick in the rear end. The material fact of “physical beauty,” a phrase which has all of the auditory appeal of “crisply shaven legs,” is given significant play in the first half of the film. Ted decides he wants to date “plain, or even homely” girls in an effort to find someone who will make a better match for him, which of course leads to him dating women played by Tushka Bergen and Hellena Schmied, who are so beautiful it’s almost indecent. The beginning of Ted’s antipathy for his hobbledehoy cousin is in the afternoon where a young Fred went out in a young Ted’s kayak and came back without it. When Fred is shot by an anti-American gunman, he was returning from a trip in which he tries to recover Ted’s many stolen pesedas. (The fact that Fred isn’t killed in that moment is a sensational callback to an earlier line in which he tried to defend America against charges of violence. The problem isn’t that America has more violent citizens, he says in reference to shootings: “We’re just better shots.”) Fred is not shy about telling Ted that he values his stuff over his cousin’s personal safety, which sounds like one of Fred’s equivocations until he gets shot in the face. American materialism is a frequent target throughout the film from the Spanish point of view as well, although Stillman does not give their complaints credence throughout. The hamburger is an important symbol. You eat these bad knock-off hamburgers, the Americans complain, talk about how bad they are, and blame America for this scourge of bad food when the problem is not the hamburger, but your interpretation. They’re not entirely wrong (and in the last three minutes or so, one of the Spanish women eats a real ‘Murican hamburger and admits it’s good), but one is reminded of Tocqueville all the same:
A foreigner will gladly agree to praise much in their country, but he would like to be allowed to criticize something and that he is absolutely refused.
There are no real good-faith critics of the American way of life living in Spain; the most vocal, Ramon (Pep Munne), is a journalist who doesn’t adequately corroborate his facts and who picks up heaps of underage girls on the side. Fred’s jingoistic perspective of all the good NATO does is made fun of, but the world of international business that the United States dominates remains thoroughly untouched by the movie’s acerbic words.
The 1992 Summer Olympics are widely given credit for making Barcelona one of the world’s premier tourist destinations, which makes the timing of Barcelona’s release two years later a little odd. The reason that this movie is set in Barcelona as opposed to Seville or Valencia or Madrid is because Stillman spent a significant portion of his life in Barcelona. Also, it helps that the rebellious Catalan capital is much more likely to behave antagonistically towards a man who insists on running around in his American military uniform because he doesn’t have good clothes. So while the movie carries an interest in the city that was already present, it also makes the setting feel less original in a vacuum. To his credit, we don’t really go sightseeing, and when we do take out our guidebooks it’s done early in the film and in a way that tells us something about the characters. Ted points out the places of interest as he drives by; Fred responds with “Uh-huh,” the grunting lingua franca of clueless Yanquis.
When Fred enters his minor coma after being shot, Ted springs into action, collecting as many people as he can (but mostly him) in order to speak to him. (Ted is given to understand that hearing familiar voices is good for patients like his vegetative cousin.) Picking books that Fred will like is a more difficult order, really, and eventually Ted decides on War and Peace, which if nothing else is long. It also happens to be a loaded choice. Each time someone reads War and Peace aloud (for Greta and a young soldier named Frank get in on the action too), the passage relates to what’s discussed after the next cut. Frank reads an encounter between Pierre, his wife, and his brother-in-law before Ted mentally reflects on the conflicts he fought with Fred. Greta reads about Andre’s reminiscence of a young Natasha as Ted wonders about Montserrat, who has not arrived to help in the struggle for Fred’s recovery. It’s only a pair of small allusions, but I think they work. It’s part of the reason Barcelona feels a little weightier than its predecessor and successor, which have their own literary influences but lack the philosophical weight of Tolstoy.
Mira Sorvino plays Fred’s sometimes girlfriend, Marta, who steals Ted’s money and intends to use it to get to the Maldives to begin anew. Her character is less fascinating than Bergen’s sympathetic and thoughtful Montserrat (and holy cow, Bergen has the best hair in the whole world and I would trade with her in a heartbeat), a little vampy at times and sometimes surprisingly naive. All the same, Sorvino gives a really fine performance as part of a sizable ensemble. Only in her mid-twenties at the time the film was released, Sorvino would win Best Supporting Actress in 1995 for Mighty Aphrodite; one would have predicted an incredible future career for her. We know that it wasn’t the case, thanks to the public revelation of Harvey Weinstein’s enormity; Sorvino is one of the several actresses who claim (convincingly, by the way) that Weinstein actively scuttled their career when he was refused sexual favors. Sorvino’s performance is an anthropological note, a might-have-been that inflects the movie with a sadness that Stillman could never have predicted and which no one involved with Barcelona would have ever hoped for. Too many talented actors and actresses have been set aside in a criminal quid pro quo that they refused to take part in; losing decades from Sorvino, who is magnetic in a couple scenes, should be one of our serious regrets in recent film viewership.