Stillman’s Wit

Early on in Barcelona, the new

film from writer-producer-director Whit Stillman, Ted Boynton reveals

to his cousin Fred that he has given up on beautiful womenphysical

beauty, he says, has distracted him from real inner beauty for too

long, and he has decided to go out with only "plain, or even

rather homely, women" from now on. It’s the sort of silly moral

stance that is sure to delight fans of Stillman’s first film, Metropolitan,

which focused on a young, self-proclaimed socialist who ends up

spending his winter vacation with a group of New York preppies who

represent everything he should despise. What Tom Townsend, Metropolitan‘s

protagonist, discovers over the course of the film is imperatives

make for fine party conversation but that in the face of human considerations

we must all remain flexible.

It’s a lesson that the heroes of Barcelona are also destined to learn. Ted Boynton, a salesman who’s in Spain

as the representative of a Chicago-based company, has his life suddenly

disrupted by the unexpected arrival of his cousin Fred, for whom

he has a long-standing distaste as the result of an unpleasant boyhood

incident.

Fred, a U.S. Navy officer, is surprised to find Barcelona

a hot-bed of anti-American sentiment; as an act of defiance, he

wears his dress uniform wherever he goes. Interestingly, that leads

to the action which propels Fred and Ted into the current of Barcelona,

which essentially mirrors the action that propels Tom Townsend into

the world of Metropolitan. Tom, dressed in a rented tuxedo,

ends up sharing a cab with a group of preppies who quickly befriend

him as one of their own; Ted and Fred end up going to a costume

party with a group of young Barcelonans who mistake Fred’s uniform

for a costume. Inevitably, these chance encounters end up changing

the lives of Stillman’s protagonists.

Taylor Nichols, Tushka Bergen and Chris Eigeman

in Barcelona.

While Metropolitan is set in a world few of

us have experienced first-hand, Stillman made the characters who

inhabit that world instantly knowable. And while many of us might

be predisposed toward dislike or at least envy where those characters

are concerned, Stillman made us empathize with them: their problems

were not unlike our own, running the gamut from the romantic / emotional

to the ethical/philosophical. Even Nick Smith, the most outwardly

snobbish of Metropolitan‘s young elite characters, is quietly

redeemed through the course of the film’s events.

Although the world in which Barcelona is set

-is quite different from the world of Metropolitan, the film’s

two central characters, cousins Ted and Fred Boynton, played by

Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman, bear striking similarities to

the characters played by the same actors in Metropolitan,

Charlie Black and Nick Smith. While they’re a few years older, Ted/Charlie

is still a hopeless romantic plagued by philosophical dilemmas,

and Fred/Nick is the cynical realist.

But though Stillman himself leas said they are essentially

the same characters with different names, there are some important

differences, most notably Fred’s choice of a career in the Navy.

Nick, preppie-snob that he was, never would have gone for that.

What’s most consistent through the two films is Stillman’s

distinctive cinematic and literary style, which is, in some ways,

that of a WASP Woody Allen. Like Allen’s characters, the characters

who people Stillman’s films are caught in philosophical and moral

dilemmas, and they love to talk about them.

Ted’s dictum regarding beautiful women changes when

he meets Montserrat, a stunning Spanish woman with whom he falls

madly in love. His reversal recalls the reversal Tom Townsend made

in Metropolitan: Tom, initially repelled by the "urban

haute bourgeois" life of his newfound friends, ultimately comes

to accept, if not embrace, their way of life. That compromise –

a tempering of strong beliefs – seems, in Stillman’s world, to be

the road to maturity.

Structurally, the chief difference between the films

has to do with a life-shattering event that happens a little after Barcelona‘s midpoint. While it would be unfair to reveal

what happens, suffice it to say that it has the feel of life’s melodrama

that was all but absent from Metropolitan.

The surprise is that while this event temporarily

disrupts the lives of Barcelona‘s characters, it doesn’t

ultimately change them. This is another departure from movie convention,

and one essential to Stillman’s vision, in which changes are made

in small increments rather than in leaps and bounds.

Visually, the films are also similar, despite a much

greater budget on Barcelona. While Barcelona has a

richer, deeper color scheme than the earlier film, the look is still

muted, and camera movement is kept to a minimum. Stillman’s camera

remains focused on his characters’ faces, and his vision continues

to revolve around their words, which reveal an ever-deepening understanding

of the world. 

If you were to take Hollywood’s powers-that-be seriously,

you might think that it’s impossible to make a decent film for less

than $10-20 mullion. Stillman puts the lie to that theory. Metropolitan cost under $100,000, while Barcelona cost in the low seven

figures.

How does he achieve so much with so little money?

No stars, no fancy effects, and terrific writing (Metropolitan earned an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay). Stillman’s

films disprove the old notion that talking heads are boring on screen;

if the talk is interesting, so too is the movie.

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