(DVD, Warner Home Video)
Whit Stillman's first film, 1990's Metropolitan, was a hilarious bit of anthropology about a world — the upper-crust realm of prep schools, trust funds, and debutante balls — completely foreign to most viewers. In this 1994 follow-up, just out on DVD, he puts a pair of preppies in an environment just as strange to them: a Barcelona of beautiful architecture and baffling politics, of gorgeous women and up-til-dawn parties.
Both worlds were familiar to the writer/director, a Harvard grad who, thanks to a long stint in Spain, was able to give this film enough un-touristy local color to make it convincing, despite the fact that practically all its dialogue is in English.
Dialogue — endlessly navel-gazing, overflowing with social theories and mundane observations, sometimes too clever for its own good — is the heart of Stillman's cinema. His wordy, self-conscious scripts have provoked many comparisons to another distinctive '90s auteur, Hal Hartley. But while Hartley's young philosophers are self-taught outsiders who pursue wisdom through books found in thrift stores, Stillman's are mentor addicts, constantly referring to the professors or employers who pointed them in a certain direction.
Which is not to say that they aren't bookworms. Barcelona's Ted Boynton lives his life by the canon of business motivational literature; he quotes freely from works like How to Win Friends and Influence People, and applies the lessons of salesman culture to his daily life. His cousin Fred, a Naval officer whose rigid patriotism makes him a sore thumb in Spain, prefers 10-pound military histories.
But those who complain that Stillman's films are too word-centric may not be paying enough attention. Though he never displays any real love for the camera, he does include bits of silent visual information that play against the endless repartee, and the director is happy to tell of film critics who, while busy writing down the script's best bon mots, missed a crucial cue. Barcelona has one major instance like that, where a very subtle gesture hints at a betrayal that's the exact opposite of what the scene's dialogue leads us to expect — a theft that changes the story's course.
Like Metropolitan, Barcelona is a romantic comedy at heart, but Stillman's characters insist on approaching love through the filter of philosophy. Ted, for instance, has decided that his weakness for physical beauty is a stumbling block, and vows that he will only date "plain or even rather homely girls." Naturally, he immediately becomes involved with a very beautiful woman, but his unusual theories allow Stillman to make some good observations about romance.
The filmmaker also allows Ted to say some laughably naive things, particularly with regard to Barcelona's prevalent sexual mores; like his idol Jane Austen, Stillman has a gift for mocking the pretensions and foibles of his characters while still remaining sympathetic towards them. Ted's a stiff, Fred's a jerk (though actor Chris Eigeman's steadfast adherence to his own misanthropy is almost endearing), and the women they date are flighty, but they remain likable thanks to dialogue that makes us understand their endless justifications for their own behavior.
Stillman hasn't made a film since 1998's The Last Days of Disco, and if he has any immediate plans, he refuses to mention them on this DVD's newly-recorded commentary track. More than most other veterans of the '90s boom in indie filmmaking, Stillman's style seems tied to a specific point in time, or rather to the decade's friendliness toward a certain kind of idiosyncrasy. But Barcelona holds up better than a lot of its peers, and seeing it now whets the appetite for the film that Stillman, were he to hold to his one-every-four-years schedule, owes us right about now. — John DeFore