By Elias Savada.
During his initial foray into filmmaking back in the 1990s, Whit Stillman was being hailed as a conquering hero successor to such cinematic titans as Preston Sturges, Leo McCarey, and Ernst Lubitsch, the creators of witty comedies that are still enjoyable many decades after they were made. Among Stillman’s favorites from these auteurs are The Awful Truth (1937), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), and The Shop Around the Corner (1940). I’d also recommend Lubitsch’s war comedy To Be or Not To Be (1942), the social comedy-drama Sullivan’s Travels (1941), and, just for its sheer anarchy (not really as a comparison to Stillman), McCarey’s sole foray into Marx Brothers territory, Duck Soup (1933).
For the 60-something Stillman, who made a smashing debut with his Oscar-nominated (best original screenplay) feature Metropolitan (1990), followed by the now-to-be-discussed Barcelona (1994), and capping the decade with the romantic drama The Last Days of Disco (1998), Barcelona was the centerfold film in his triptych salute to quirky, misguided twenty-somethings, with some of the best dialogue this side of My Dinner with Andre. Set against the last decade of the Cold War, it was a subtly subversive salute to romance in 1980s Spain.
While there are thematic similarities in the three films, not to mention actors playing different roles from one to the next to the next, each movie tells its own coming-of-age tale with off-balance characters. Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman, part of the upper haute bourgeois set depicted in Metropolitan, take center stage in Barcelona as American cousins abroad Ted (Nichols) and Fred (Eigeman) Boynton, urbane yet immature souls who deadpan their way through a politically hostile, yet sexually liberated Spanish countryside. The lightly starched, Old Testament Ted, a salesman with a great admiration for Dale Carnegie, reluctantly welcomes Fred, an overly self-assured naval officer on assignment as an advance man for the Sixth Fleet. Their anecdotal adventures find them in the company of several lovely trade fair girls (from a nearby exposition hall), including Montserrat (Tushka Bergan) and Marta (Mira Sorvino), as they strut about town in this tale with an autobiographical slant. (Stillman lived in Barcelona in the 1980s, when he was a film distributor sales rep, and his knowledge of the city from the decade infuses his script.)
The brilliant writing remains as bright as ever over the years, and some rings all too familiar considering the current political landscape. At a party, the Damn-the-Torpedoes-Full-Steam-Ahead Fred reacts to a local’s comments that Americans are more violent than other people. “All those shootings in America.” Fred doesn’t flinch. “Oh, shootings. Yes, but that doesn’t mean Americans are more violent than other people. We’re just better shots.” Bazinga.
Stillman is, sadly, an occasional director. After his third film he relocated to Paris; when he returned to New York in 2010 Damsels in Distress hit theatres a year later. There’s more interest in the filmmaker with the recent arrival of his fifth feature and first period piece, Love & Friendship, from the Jane Austen novella Lady Susan. This bust-a-corset comedy of manners reunited him with his Disco stars Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale. For the latecomers to Stillman’s films who have only found the joy in Stillman’s sophisticated dialogue and well-tempered direction in his latest work, there is a way to catch up with most of his output. The director-approved Criterion Collection Blu-ray set of the entire 1990s “Doomed Bourgeois in Love” series (a phrase in the informative essay by Haden Guest, director of the Harvard Film Archive that is in the printed brochure accompanying the Barcelona disc), is now available. While I have only viewed the middle work in Blu-ray (while having caught all of the filmmaker’s work on the big, art-house screen through the years), the entire trio will provide a perfect reference point to the writer-director’s sincere sensibilities.
Of the various goodies on the Blu-ray disc from The Criterion Collection, I recommend starting with film critic Farran Smith Nehme’s insightful 20-minute video essay about the director-writer that was commissioned for this new edition of the film. The main attraction is an exceptionally crisp 2K transfer and 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack. It’s beautifully pristine, after technicians removed all the dirt from the 35mm A/B original camera negative supervised by Stillman and his cinematographer John Thomas. Not so good news for the four short deleted scenes and an alternate ending (all seen in the Warner Home Video 2002 DVD version), cobbled from a muddied, rough cut version of the film and thus without the finished color, audio, and other textured editing that are part of the actual feature. The frothy commentary track with Stillman, Nichols, and Eichols is also lifted from the earlier DVD. There’s also a behind-the-scenes featurette made during the film’s production, plus appearances by Stillman on The Dick Cavett Show, the Today show with Katie Couric, and a 12-minute interview from July 1994 on the Charlie Rose show.
Elias Savada is a movie copyright researcher, critic, craft beer geek, and avid genealogist based in Bethesda, Maryland. He helps program the Spooky Movie International Movie Film Festival, and previously reviewed for Film Threat and Nitrate Online. He is an executive producer of the new horror film German Angst and co-author, with David J. Skal, of Dark Carnival: the Secret World of Tod Browning.