Thursday, September 03, 2009


BARCELONA (1994, USA, Whit Stillman)
What is this? Some strange Glenn Miller-based religious ceremony?
No. Presbyterian.

Whit Stillman's wonderful trilogy of serious comedies about rich kids in love might almost be dubbed "The Discrete Charm of the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie." The second, a story of not-so-much-ugly-as-absurd-but-still-rather-charming Americans abroad, is the lightest of the three, the characters' upper-class foibles extended to the point of likable ridiculousness (to borrow Donald Lyon's apt description). It is probably also the most spiritually explicit – in Stillman's characteristic, delightfully confounding way.

Here his whole tone is sunnier and lighter hearted, as befits the Mediterranean locale: these kids are having fun, earnest and self-preoccupied though they may be. Stillman's humor is at its most direct and whimsical, turning on endless (and endlessly inventive) misperceptions and "lost in cultural translation" moments. If the stakes are higher in this story of twenty-something Americans abroad – in fact, they are truly life-and-death, with a prolonged hospital vigil and at least one funeral – somehow the tone remains less sombre throughout. And while we are dealing with far more serious matters – the end of the Cold War rather than the last days of the debutantes or the decline of disco –romance and comedy carry the day. The last act of the original screenplay extended an anti-American terrorist subplot in a way that risked dominating the film, rendering it far messier, more explicitly political, and therefore distinctly less Stillmanesque. The film version edits out that "bigger" story in the home stretch, wisely narrowing its focus to character: the political points have been made, we want to get to the wedding for God's sake! Multiple weddings, as it turns out, with plenty of surprises: heck, it's practically Shakespearean.

If Audrey was the still centre of the social whirl that was METROPOLITAN, Charlie and Nick made it spin, and you have to think Stillman penned this follow-up as a showcase for actors Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman. Here they play cousins Ted and Fred Boynton (you can sense the broader humour even in the names), but it's mostly only the names that have been changed: these innocents abroad are pretty much yuppie extensions of their preppy forebears.

Both are sales reps of a sort. Ted represents the ultra-Yankee IHSMOCO – The Illinois High-Speed Motor Corporation – a devout apostle of Saints Benjamin, Ralph Waldo and Dale, while his cousin takes a decidedly more casual approach to his role as "sort of an advance man" for the U.S. Navy; "The last fleet visit was a disaster, so they thought it was a good idea to get someone in early to smooth things out and make sure nothing goes wrong." Of course, this being a comedy, the job falls to the utterly tactless Fred, who is oblivious to the fact that he is grossly unsuited to such a potentially (and literally) explosive diplomatic mission. Of course, this being a Stillman comedy, the implicit comment on a military leadership that would choose so blunt an instrument for so delicate an operation is left unstated – only to be quietly subverted in due time. One might almost say the film ends up a remarkably subtle study of the glories of good old fashioned Yankee bluntness.

In fact Eigeman's character differs significantly from his METROPOLITAN antecedent: if Fred puts the boor back in bourgeois, Nick was in fact the sophisticate of his circle, the keeper of its morals and traditions, however poorly he proved able to fulfill those standards. Prone to speak the unspeakable, he was more gadfly than goofball: to his circle, Nick's behaviour could appear unconsciounable, but he was in fact its conscience. Ted is more or less socially unconscious, and pretty much lacks any conscience at all apart from his reflexive pro-Americanism. Stillman's great accomplishment is that we love him for it.

It is the Nichols character who follows the most directly from the prior film. In his opening speech, METROPOLITAN's Charlie is pegged as a compulsive theorizer with a religious bent, his certainty of God's existence predicated on the flow of chatter that plays constantly in his head and the conviction that Someone must be listening. In the latter film, that Someone is (at least in part) the audience: Ted's relentless intellectualizing spills out into voice-over, and we are made privy to a curious sort of spiritual awakening. The all-too-decent Charlie hoped someday to regain his innate childhood "belief in a supreme being" by "a conscious act of faith": in the character of Ted, we have the privilege of seeing that process unfold.

The film is packed with memorable moments. An evasive Ted lies about his true reasons for staying home one evening, clandestine "reading material" hidden behind a copy of The Economist – leading to a comic payoff as touching as it is absurd. There is an embarassment of feminine riches (and you'd better pay close attention: the gorgeous dark-haired princess is Marta, Aurora is her maybe-plain-maybe-beautiful friend who gets named most often but shows up least, Montserrat is the cosi-perfecto blonde who shows up at the Hampton concert, Greta the "War And Peace" reader): out of this confusing chaos of attractive, sexually active Spanish girls emerges one who sketches angels – but not professionally – and knows a few Catholic prayers: she's cosi-religious. And a perfectly obvious miracle is wrought before our very eyes, obscured by playful editing and subverted by clever writing, our attention rodeo-clown distracted by Fred's definitive declaration of that Stillman trademark phrase, "Oh give me a break!"

Writing about METROPOLITAN, Armond White comments that Stillman's singular interest in character "reveals each one's moral quest. The effort to behave decently, even by the most eccentric (self-serving) standards, gives Stillman's upperclass stories a surprising kick and a fine grain." It is marvelous to see these moral quests extend beyond the confines of a single movie, as a handful of familiar characters in fascinating variations are stripped of superficial childhood securities to make their slow, stumbling journeys toward grace.


The Criterion DVD of BARCELONA is available at Videomatica, as is the brand new Criterion DVD of THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO.

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