the better truth

the better truth

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Barcelona (1994)


Barcelona is the second film of the American auteur, Whit Stillman. His debut, Metropolitan, showed rich white teenagers facing the travails of the New York debutante world. Although Mr. Stillman has shifted continents little else has changed. It is the same crowd with the same struggles in older buildings. Variations on a theme can be an interesting challenge provided the artist is up to the task. Unfortunately Mr. Stillman proves that film is still without its Edith Wharton.

The conflicts involved in Mr. Stillman's work might better be suited to an Everly Brothers' song rather than a full length feature film. Barcelona's two young American yuppie male protagonists fret over girls in between petty fights and sophomoric philosophizing. These two cousin fail despite Stillman's efforts. There are hints that he intended something grander. The tag-line in the poster reads "Americans and anti-Americans in love". The opening scene features a terrorist bombing of Barcelona's American library and other attacks on U.S. targets. There are endless references to the Cold War and the United States love/hate relationship with Europe. This is prompted by one of the cousins serving as an American Naval Officer. Unfortunately the superfluousness of the central characters undercuts any hint of larger themes. The sailor is a coxcomb and his cousin is a prig. In this context the weighty political debate melds into knit-picky roommate altercations and dull gossip. Comedy might have been the path to success; regrettably Whit doesn't prove very witty. In a basic structural terms he gives us two Felix Ungers; The Odd Couple becomes The Annoying Cousins.

The stiffness of the two cousins mirrored the director's mechanics. It is odd that Mr. Stillman chooses to work in film. One feels the proscenium arch in every one of the laborious vignettes. The voice over cues an establishing shot, the "action" begins till the fade out prompting another voice over… The visual monotony is coupled with dialogue that seems paced by a metronome. Not even the upper class WASP world is this rigid. Given Mr. Stillman's blue blooded aristocratic east side background one would have thought he would have been able to detect the patent falseness. Not surprisingly the natives are even more disappointing. There are a steady stream of second rate American actresses pretending to be Spanish. They are beautiful, bland and thoroughly unconvincing.

In his debut Whit Stillman exhibited an ability to carefully craft a story and fully utilize a setting. Metropolitan was shot on super 16 with a shoe-string budget using borrowed apartments and late night exteriors. It is a case study in how to produce a quality low budget fiction feature. It seems Mr. Stillman left all his Yankee frugality and know-how state-side while in Europe.  The production values in Barcelona matched the acting, directing and writing. Mr. Stillman managed to produce a work of uniform mediocrity. It is an astounding leap backward. There is no doubt that the next Stillman production will focus on young American aristocrats. Let us hope the director re-discovers some of the magic of his first effort. Those "Metropolitan" aristocrats were born in the frugality of Stillman being an unknown first-timer. The "Barcelona" group evolved in the luxurious decadence of Stillman's success. This second feature proves the old adage: money isn't everything. Maybe a few of Whit's characters will learn this lesson as well.      

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