Barcelona is Whit Stillman’s first studio-financed film and follows the story of Ted and Fred, two Americans abroad looking for love in the Spanish city. The film is based on Stillman’s own experiences in Spain during the 1980s and is set against a backdrop of the anti-NATO feeling at the time.
The two central characters, with amusingly rhyming names are a great example of the Modern American fictional tradition of ‘Americans abroad’, explored in literary works by Hemingway and Fitzgerald. This is such another exploration, and their exploits unveil similar cultural differences.
The central character is Ted (Taylor Nichols), shy, self-effacing and socially awkward. Working a dead-end sales job and impressing no-one doing it, Ted begins to look for romance, but his quest is interrupted when his estranged cousin Fred invites himself to stay. What follows is a classic odd-couple comedy with a twist, the fantastic twist here being Stillman’s subtle ironic style. The most memorable exchanges occur between these two, and their complex family relationship is constantly being tested by Fred’s incessant need to inject drama into every situation: ‘you never confide anything in me so I have to extrapolate’.
The backdrop of bombings and anti-NATO/anti-American feeling is perfect for the portrayal of such a character as Fred, constantly bursting with one liners including the hilarious: ‘What are they [the Spanish] for? Soviet troops racing across Europe eating all the croissants?’ His upper-class eccentricity and misunderstanding of other cultures is the highlight of the film, and Eigeman yet again fulfils his role effortlessly. His boredom with everything, juxtaposed with his absolute horror at trivial matters carries the film along most entertainingly.
Other comic moments come from a hilarious scene in which Ted reads the Bible whilst dancing to Glenn Miller’s ‘PEnnsylvania 6-5000’, whilst unknowingly watched by Fred and Marta (Mira Sorvino), who conclude that S+M would be more normal; and another in which Marta lists America’s issues, as observed by a European (consumerism, obesity, fascism) to which Fred replies in an off-hand manner, ‘it’s a problem’.
The portrayal of love in Barcelona is complex and actually touches upon some key issues which can often affect relationships including politics and money. Ted and Fred’s hugely contrasting attitudes towards finding ‘the one’ allow for many surreal and comically awkward moments, and Fred’s assertion that The Graduate identifies the reality of marriage (losing your wife to Dustin Hoffman on a bus) is one of the film’s highlights.
Stillman seems to focus on his two male protagonists, despite Tushka Bergen being the poster-girl for the film. The female characters are largely side-lined, yet this is no real loss, as the supporting cast are used in such a way as to emphasise the complicated relationship of Ted and Fred. Bergen, Sorvino and Badia provide the setting for scenes in which Nichols and Eigeman clash over political and personal differences, and give enjoyable performances which do not over-shadow the excellent leads.
Once again, Stillman delivers a beautifully original and ironic tale of love and life, this time in a very different environment, but his distinctive creative style still inspires every aspect of the movie and produces a brilliantly funny result.