Barcelona (1994)

20 01 2014

The frustrating part about discussing Whit Stillman’s films is that, inevitably, adjectives like “charming” and “likable” come to my mind. They also populate most of what I’ve read about him. The limitation here is that his films can only be seen through this language, and the experience is this just something that is pleasant and nothing more. Barcelona is indeed charming and very funny, but a film’s humor or its charm can’t be divorced from the emotional connection you make with it. The language around Stillman suggests something light and frivolous and while the lives of his protagonist seem to be that of great privilege and little consequence, there is something urgent and sad happening in their lives. In a way, I’ve found that both this and Metropolitan are sneaky films.


Ted is a salesman for a Chicago-based company working in Barcelona. He’s not exactly outgoing. His cousin, Fred, arrives unannounced. Fred is a bit more outgoing, but being an officer for the US Navy becomes an invitation for rude behavior from locals. Additionally, Fred is remarkably sensitive to this ill will, which complicates things when both become involved with local women. Ted falls for Montserrat, who is still somewhat involved with an outspoken yet sleazy newspaper writer. Fred is involved with Marta, who doesn’t seem to be particularly honest in her attentions.


Working from the skeletal narrative of Barcelona, one could fine plenty to criticize. The fact that Fred and Ted’s foreign treatment is given serious attention might give one the impression that Stillman is sympathetic to their situation. In a way, he is, but not to the degree that the characters themselves feel slighted. Moving on from there, we get a story about male friendship following that of failed heterosexual romances. These things typically are boorish, trying to further validate the gendered differences that heterosexual relationships illuminate, but never providing any insight into why they are that or where they come from. Stillman’s approach is different, though. The hurt of a mean woman who just won’t love you is not redeemed by the “true” companionship of another good male friend. I mean, on paper, that’s what happens to Fred and Ted but their growth doesn’t come at the expense of another character. The most important trait I have found in all of Stillman’s films is that his characters are all flawed, weird, and complex, but he cares for them.


More important than these character’s flawed personalities is the fact that they’re not presented as such. Sure, they are imperfect characters but hesitate with this description because I feel like it evokes the rhetoric used to talk about a filmmaker like John Cassavetes. You can imagine Ray Carney saying something similar, but in this case, he’s talking about it in the context of raw and frank emotional intensity. Stillman’s world is the opposite, the flaws of his characters aren’t made a point of, instead, it’s almost as though the filmmaker just accepts them as an inevitability. The power of his film comes from getting so familiar and comfortable with these “flawed” characters that the very things that even their annoying features become admirable. It doesn’t absolve of them of personal critique, but it does validate all of their experience as worthwhile. Stillman is a man so the slant is obviously towards his male protagonists, but the periphery characters also matter to him. Their existence is not to justify certain actions or progress a story along.


With the setting changing from Manhattan to Barcelona, Stillman’s aesthetic begins to more closely resemble that of Eric Rohmer. I think Stillman is operating on a same field, anyway, and least in his perceptions about relationships. If there’s a difference, it’s that Rohmer seems to explore the things that make relationships function and eventually fail. Stillman is more singular, perhaps explore the inner struggle of his character, but such word choice suggests something much heavier than his films. It’s important to stress that he’s funny and again, it works with everything else he manages to achieve. He hasn’t made a poignant film that is funny, but instead one that resonates in part because of its humor.




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