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 women—physical
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
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
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
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.