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Criterion Collection: Barcelona | Blu-ray Review

Whit Stillman BarcelonaCriterion resurrects Whit Stillman’s 1994 sophomore film, Barcelona, previously the indie auteur’s most neglected title and heretofore unavailable on DVD. Breaking a fourteen year hiatus in 2011 with Damsels in Distress, he’s amassed a significant following thanks to his four idiosyncratic features. Beginning with 1990’s Metropolitan, a high brow portrait of prep school fledglings desperately attempting to glean meaning from New York’s crumbling debutante society was informed by the sensibilities of Jane Austen, Stillman’s now come full circle with his soon-to-be-released fifth venture, Love and Friendship, an adaptation of Austen’s novella. But if shades of Austen have infected his hyper-intelligent filmography featuring verbose protagonists prone to neurosis, his second outing owes as much to classic Woody Allen tropes (in hindsight, this could’ve been called Ted, Fred, Barcelona). Its barbs and critiques as breezy and casual as the rampant superficial witticisms concerning the clash of the sexes, there are morbid political undercurrents perhaps explaining why the title hasn’t received the same amount of commendation.

Ted Boynton (Taylor Nichols) is a stuffy Illinois salesman working in the Barcelona office of a US corporation circa early 1980s. Nebbish and idealistic, his life is suddenly turned upside down when his cousin Fred (Chris Eigman), an officer in the US Navy, pops up unexpectedly while on shore leave. But Fred has somewhat of a reputation for mucking things up and making irresponsible decisions, basically the polar opposite of buttoned up Ted. But Ted agrees to show his cousin around and he introduces him to a group of young women who work as English-speaking hostesses at various international affairs and events, which leads them to Marta (Mira Sorvino), whom Fred immediately flirts with, convincing her crew Fred is secretly a freaky acolyte of the Marquis de Sade and wears S&M gear under his plainclothes. Eventually, Ted finds himself attracted to a beautiful blonde, Montserrat Raventos (Tushka Bergen), a woman Fred also finds alluring. As they navigate through their romantic affairs, the dominant culture around them doesn’t seem too keen on entertaining their conversation or public presentation, with various shadowy left-wing figures popping up to denounce Fred as a dirty fascist (based mostly on his military garb and incessant sarcasm).

“Beauty is the closest to divinity,” is one of several repeated mantras throughout Ted and Fred’s various discussions on women, Ted’s stagnant romantic hypothesis dictating he seek the attention of less attractive or homely women in order to combat the side effects of jealous tinged amour fou he associates with women out of his league. Those accustomed to Stillman’s particular repartee should feel right at home with Ted and Fred, both portrayed by actors who debuted in the earlier Metropolitan. Chris Eigman is the more effortless presence here, though he’s playing the more entertaining character as the buffoonish Fred, who courts cultural disdain when he realizes their presence is not desired in a country intent on expelling any shade of Fascism. He lands Stillman’s particularly magniloquent diatribes with finesse, while Nichols sometimes exudes false notes here, his attempt at navigating Ted’s passivity sometimes wooden. Ted’s omniscient narration informs the film’s droll tone, flippantly aligning himself with Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman character, though he actually exudes an archaic worldview, which lends him a certain authenticity more often mistaken for naiveté.

Jockeying for the attention of local women seems to occlude their senses, allowing for a late staged attack on Fred. The supporting female characters predate Stillman’s more persuasive lead protagonists in later, greater titles, like the women of The Last Days of Disco (1997), deliriously reunited for the effervescent Love & Friendship. Of those here, wide-eyed Tushka Bergen (who was featured prominently on the film’s original poster) is the definite standout as the provocatively named Montserrat Raventos. A pre-Oscar Mira Sorvino (who would break out with Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite a year later) attempts a Spanish accent and provides assistance in several amusing sequences, but isn’t ever more than a catalyst for the various networking of the two main characters.

Accomplished, and polished, the film feels like a natural progression for Stillman following the breakout success of Metropolitan (and Barcelona happens to be the project he wanted to make first, but could not due to the funding required for a foreign independent film).

Disc Review:

Criterion presents this once unavailable gem with a newly restored 2k digital transfer in 1.85:1. Returning DP John Thomas (who lensed Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco) does some of his best work here in what’s technically a period piece, (set a decade prior in the ‘last decade of the Cold War,’ with timely references to specific figures, like CIA operative Philip Agee) though due to the characters’ cultural resistance, there’s an odd timeless quality to this portrait of the titular city. The 2.0 surround DTS-HD Master Audio is admirable, though not so much for Mark Suozzo’s (who scored Stillman’s first four features) score as for the capturing of Stillman’s rapid fire dialogue. As usual for Criterion, the disc (which is part of Criterion’s new trilogy set for Stillman, which includes their previous releases of Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco) is decked out with bonus features (including audio commentary from 2002 featuring Stillman along with Eigman and Nichols).

Video Essay:
Film critic Farran Smith Nehme connects themes and characters intersecting thoughout Stillman’s first three films in this seventeen minute video essay.

The Making of Barcelona:
A five minute documentary feature shot in 1993 features behind-the-scenes footage and members with cast and crew.

Deleted Scenes and Alternate Ending:
Four minutes worth of deleted scenes (all including optional commentary are included), though together they only near three minutes of footage. Additionally, a four minute alternate ending sequence is also included.

Today/Dick Cavett/Charlie Rose:
Segments of Stillman on the Today Show (1994), Dick Cavett Show (1991), and Charlie Rose (1994) 1994 are available, .

Final Thoughts:

Though reflecting the superficial antics of two self-involved men, Barcelona is a comical analysis of privileged perspectives, where heteronormative American obliviousness anxiously struggles to comprehend opposing viewpoints, cultures, and the needs or desires of the opposite sex.

Film Review: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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