by Ethan Leonard
Barcelona (1994) is the second installment in a trilogy of films directed by Whit Stillman, located between Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco. The film is set in its titular city during “the last decade of the Cold War” (00:01:29) and depicts the efforts by two cousins, the nebbish and nervous Ted Boynton (Taylor Nichols) and the devilishly acerbic Fred (Chris Eigeman), to navigate the romantic and political complexities of life abroad. As with its cinematic brethren, Barcelona is not carried with any urgency by any particular plot movement. Fred, a salesman for the fictional Imsoco Corporation feels a sense of constant jeopardy regarding his job, while Fred, a junior lieutenant for the United States Navy’s Sixth Fleet is perpetually dealing with the climate of anti-Americanism in Barcelona, culminating in a near lethal encounter that takes his eye. While these may appear to be matters of severe urgency, the film instead relegates them to the background to focus on the sense of ennui and uncertainty felt by the cousins as they drift across an endless landscape of bars, restaurants, and nightclubs.
What Barcelona does spectacularly well is induce one to consider the spaces of feasting. Much like the Upper West Side apartments of Metropolitan and the discotheques of The Last Days of Disco, the nightclubs and bars act for the film’s protagonists as archipelagos of stability amidst the dislocation of living abroad. The conversations in the film nearly always occur during moments of movement, in cars or on strolls, while the characters pace back and forth or get out of bed after sex. Spaces of feasting are the exception to this; the common experience of dining is capable of producing a type of sociality beyond time and space. These moments of stillness and timelessness reflect a central theme throughout Stillman’s trilogy: a tragic fatalism in the form of the characters.
It is not for no reason that Stillman refers to Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco as the Doomed-Bourgeois-in-Love Series. All three films, although it's a feature more pronounced in the first and final installments, deal with people romantically marrying themselves to vanishing worlds, be it New York’s debutante society or the Studio 51 scene. In Barcelona both Fred and Ted identify themselves with declining or retreating institutions, with Ted dedicating himself completely to the moribund trade of salesmanship and Fred being a dedicated soldier in the Cold War. The procession through bars and nightclubs that comprise much of the film acts to anesthetize our characters against the changes occurring around them, a theme which comes across through the architecture of the restaurants themselves, often being windowless or populated by patrons wearing costumes from the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century. These spaces of feasting are enclosed from the gnawing anxieties that cut up against Fred and Ted in the outside world: they are points of a seductively therapeutic distraction that allow them to forget their own doom.
The stasis represented by sitting and eating, or more often drinking in the case of the film, allows for one to step outside the movement of time. Barcelona is, in this regard, very much a film in the vein of the works such as Vladimir Nabokov’s autobiographical Speak, Memory or Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories, something that places a character at a particular historical moment to which they remain insular. For Barcelona, it is the spaces of eating and drinking that acts as a barrier to the anxiety of change, allowing for Fred and Ted to engage in witty dialogues on trivial matters as the world around them moves on.
Barcelona. Dir. Whit Stillman. Castle Rock Entertainment, 1994.