Monday, June 27, 2016

CLOUDS OF SILS MARIA - #822


My capsule review, from a festival appearance in February, 2015, of Clouds of Sils Maria:

Good, but muddled. A tighter grip on the sprawling script could have gone a long way. Such self-reflexiveness requires a rigorous editorial process, and much here is too obvious to fall anywhere but flat. Likewise, the jabs at Hollywood are too smug to qualify as satire.

But Juliette Binoche is sublime, and somehow Kristen Stewart continues to impress with each new role while Chloe Grace-Moretz only becomes less convincing the more she matures. Wouldn't have seen that switcheroo coming.



Sunday, June 26, 2016

LA CHIENNE - #818


Jean Renoir had made nine films before he made his first sound picture, the 1931 comedy On purge bébé (Baby’s Laxative). His second, the more serious La chienne (The Bitch) followed shortly after, released the same year. Both are included on this new Criterion edition of La chienne, and they couldn’t be further apart in content, even if they do show the same confident, inventive storytelling.

In fact, La chienne shows its ambitions from the very start. Unlike many early sound directors, Renoir doesn’t sacrifice camera movement for audio. The narrative is framed as a puppet show, with Renoir referencing the classic tropes of Punch and Judy and the constable caught between them as a set up for his lover’s triangle, before cutting to his second shot, a dish riding up a dumbwaiter, being taken out, and served to a group of accountants out on the town for the evening. Entering as we do through the dumbwaiter, we are practically crawling through the screen. Renoir is serving up his movie, evoking the familiar and luring us in with his tantalizing ingredients.


Those ingredients are a pimp, his girl, and the sad middle-aged man that picks the wrong time to do the right thing. Legendary French actor Michel Simon (L’Atalante [review]; The Two of Us [review]) plays Maurice Legrand, one of the accountants whooping it up for the night. Except he’s not. Legrand is the office joke, a notorious wet blanket, and a henpecked husband. No one takes him seriously, much less his dreams of being a painter. Yet, when he comes across Dédé (Georges Flamant, The 400 Blows [review]) beating on Lulu (Janie Marèse), he steps in and pushes the man off. Lulu chastises him, defending her abuser, but then enlists Legrand’s help further. In this surprising white knight, she’s spotted a predictable sucker.

From there, she stokes Legrand’s desire, getting him to put her up in an apartment and playing the role of his mistress. When his meager allowance and the money he steals from his wife (Magdeleine Bérubet) proves insufficient to support Lulu and Dédé, whom Legrand naturally has no idea is on the payroll, the shady pair resorts to a scheme where they sell Legrand’s paintings, passing Lulu off as the artist.


If the plot sounds a little familiar, it might be because Fritz Lang would remake La chienne several years later as Scarlet Street [review]. While Lang’s version would be invigorated with the salacious tang of film noir, Renoir’s original mined the seedy side of Paris life for a far more interesting dynamic. While his story has the trappings of a good potboiler, it also takes a serious look at abuse, with Flamant playing Dédé as purely selfish and wholly dishonest, building up Lulu only to tear her down through denial and violence. It’s a dark, unromantic portrayal of a pimp, all false swagger and despicable bluster. Juxtaposed with this is Legrand’s own abusive relationship: his wife verbally lays into him every time he goes home. While that subplot will have a more comic outcome, things can only go bad for those tangled up in the main story.


Michel Simon, as ever, is fantastic. In some ways, his performance as Legrand calls to mind Takashi Shimura in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru [review]. Simon shows a similar reserve, pulling back to create an image of a shy, but relatable man who often gets ignored or passed over. That both men in these movies find some comfort with a younger woman is a whole other thing, perhaps to be explored at a later time; here, the more important aspect is how the relationship emboldens the older man to stand up for himself, while also challenging the audience’s judgment of him. On one hand, we want him to be happy, but on the other, we lose faith in Legrand as he lies and steals and lets himself be taken advantage of.

Renoir stages his climactic scene with a touch of irony. When Legrand confronts Lulu, their disagreement is soundtracked by a live band playing in the streets below the window of the love nest he has provided. Their song is a romantic one, even as what happens far above, outside of eye and earshot of the gathered crowd, is anything but. If La chienne were a noir, this would likely be the end of it, but Renoir is curious how everything else will play out, showing us the full extent of the consequences for all involved, down to a short epilogue jumping ahead several years. Noir is about the hard end, there is not much carrying on from the bad decisions everyone makes; Renoir’s view of life is far more generous, and also more sad.


No such sadness creeps into the other feature, On purge bébé, a short comedy (just under an hour) adapted from a play by Georges Feydeau. Michel Simon has a part in this film, as well, playing Chouilloux, a well-connected politician who is the guest of Follavoine (Jacques Louvigny, Hotel du Nord), a porcelain manufacturer intent on convincing Chouilloux to give him the contract to supply the French Army with chamber pots. Uncooperative in this endeavor is Follavoine’s wife Julie (Marguerite Pierry), who is more concerned with their son’s failure to go to the bathroom. Much of the movie is the husband trying to convince his spouse to get dressed for the lunch with Chouilloux, his wife, and her lover, while Julie is trying to convince their son, a.k.a. Baby, to take a laxative. There is also much business with chamber pots and slush buckets, and even some mild slapstick surrounding the mineral oil.

On purge bébé is harmless and silly, if a little uneven in pacing. The humor is overly chatty, and perhaps lost to time and translation. Simon is excellent, though, playing a more genial and bumbling fellow than we have otherwise become accustomed to from him. For more on the relationship between Renoir and Simon, this disc also has a 1967 television documentary featuring the two old friends looking back over their collaborations. It is directed by Jacques Rivette, and rounds out what is an impressive presentation of both films. The restorations of La chienne and On purge bébé are fantastic. Fans of European comics will also appreciate the new cover and interior poster by Blutch, whose graphic novel So Long, Silver Screen is a must for all cinephiles.  


This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

  

Sunday, June 19, 2016

HERE COMES MR. JORDAN - #819


Films about the afterlife and how hapless shmoes interact with divinity seem to have had their heyday in the 1940s, when inventive filmmakers dreamed up new visions of heaven and wrestled with the concept of second chances. Perhaps it was the post-Depression, wartime anxiety at work, launching Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life [review] and Powell and Pressburger’s exquisite A Matter of Life and Death into the zeitgeist. Both were released in 1946, but five years prior Alexander Hall (Let’s Do It Again [review] was leading the way by introducing us all to Mr. Jordan.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan is the story of Joe Pendleton, a random renaissance man played by Robert Montgomery (Lady in the Lake, Ride the Pink Horse). I say random because Joe’s vocational hobbies don’t have much rhyme or reason. A boxer on the way to being the champ, Joe is also a pilot and a saxophone player. It’s because he insists on flying himself to his next match that Joe ends up in a tailspin that shuffles him off to the other side, lucky sax in tow. It’s there that Joe meets Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains, Casablanca, Notorious [review]), a sort of stand-in for Saint Peter and the coordinator for souls flying off to their final destination. Quite literally. In this afterlife, one does not travel to heaven via the stairs, but on an airplane.


Turns out there was a mix-up and Joe was snatched too soon by an over-eager angel (longtime character actor Edward Everett Horton (Design for Living [review], It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad,Mad World). Joe was not meant to die that day, but the angel grabbed him before he could right his plane. More complications result from the fact that Joe’s body was cremated before he could be returned to it, and now the boxer is owed some 50 years of living. Mr. Jordan’s solution is to find him a new body, replacing him for someone else newly deceased. None of the options please Joe, however, he wants someone as fit as he was.

Mr. Jordan eventually plays on the boxer’s sense of right and decency, convincing him to take over for a rich man whose wife and trusted aide have conspired to kill him. By stepping into Farnsworth’s shoes, he can rescue poor Betty (Evelyn Keyes, The Lady in Question [review], Hell’s Half Acre) and her father, whom Farnsworth and his cronies have framed for lost millions. Joe quickly falls for the girl, and tries to change Farnsworth’s image, while also hoping to resume his boxing career, two destinies that are seemingly at odds with one another.


Destiny is an important factor of Here Comes Mr. Jordan. If a man is fated for a certain life, how can he maintain that track when the circumstances change unexpectedly? Even in Farnsworth’s body, Joe knows that he is Joe, though only he--and us--sees himself as Robert Montgomery. No one else can see Mr. Jordan, either, leading to some expected humor about the crazy tycoon talking to himself. Mr. Jordan serves as a bit of a guide, leading Joe to make the right decisions, culminating in a surprising ending that gives the man a little bit of everything, while also giving him peace. Without spoiling too much, imagine a life where you know you are not you. It’s not exactly a fix for the injury done against Joe by cutting short his existence.

Hall’s vision of paradise--which it should be noted was initiated by writer Harry Segall in his play Heaven Can Wait, which Here Comes Mr. Jordan is a loose adaptation of--is rather simple. Smoke on the ground, an empty horizon--though, I suppose that’s actually purgatory, we never go all the way to heaven proper. It’s a calm place, and Jordan himself remains calm throughout, never caught off guard or swayed, a soothing presence meant to ease the anxiety that apparently follows us from life to death. Rains is a perfect choice for the role. His even-handed charm can be as inviting when he’s a good guy as it is unnerving when he’s a bad guy. In fact, in a later film, he would play the flipside of Mr. Jordan, serving as the devil giving Paul Muni another go-around in 1946’s Angel on my Shoulder, this time from an actual Harry Segall screenplay. Claude Rains clearly sees the thin line between good and evil and can perform equally well on either.


The actor’s cool demeanor serves as a nice foil to Robert Montgomery’s chatty palooka. It’s funny, Montgomery is an actor I enjoy, though I never find him convincing. Not in the way Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart can always be themselves and yet also make me believe in their characters; Montgomery always strikes me as someone who is putting it on, rather than getting absorbed in it. It makes no matter here, though, as Joe is all forward energy, and Hall aims for a comic tone that is just a step or two shy of screwball, a perfect spot for Montgomery to operate in.

The movie itself is similar: charming, if sometimes a little threadbare or even rushed, particularly at the end, when the explanation for why Joe suddenly can’t be champ practically contradicts certain exposition that came earlier. There’s a convenience to the new rules that would be off-putting if the finale wasn’t so satisfying. Here Comes Jordan was such a hit that it would later inspire a sequel in 1947’s Down to Earth, replacing Montgomery for Rita Hayworth and Rains for Roland Culver (and with Hall once again behind the camera). Not having seen it, I can’t say if Hall makes as good with his second chance as Joe Pendleton does with his, but then, I guess that’s just another of life’s little mysteries I’ll get to eventually solve before moving over to the next world myself. (No, seriously, what if I literally die after watching it?!)


Note: This disc was provided by the Criterion Collection for purposes of review.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

SILENT OZU - THREE CRIME DRAMAS: THAT NIGHT'S WIFE - ECLIPSE SERIES 42


This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to attend the SanFrancisco Silent Film Festival, three days and four nights of movies spanning genre and international borders. Among the selections was one of Yasujiro Ozu's early efforts, That Night’s Wife, which also so happens to be part of the Eclipse boxed set, Silent Ozu - Three Crime Dramas.

I've had my eye on that collection for some time, and based on That Night’s Wife, it's one I should move to the top of my Eclipse wish list. Based on a Hollywood picture the director read about in a movie magazine, this lean melodrama blends the best of Ozu's family matters with a noirish crime story. When examining this 1930 release, one can neatly cleave these two elements in half, particularly as the criminal activity itself is relegated to the front of the narrative.


Tokihika Okada (Tokyo Song) plays Shuji, the distraught father of a sick child. Finding himself short of funds to pay the doctor bills, Shuji heads out into the night to commit a robbery. He gets the cash, but not before the cops get wind of his heist. A foot chase through the streets ensues, with the amateur thief ducking down shadowy alleys and into phone booths to get an update from the hospital. Ozu abstracts the crime, adopting a nigh-surrealistic montage of still shots and extreme angles, like a fragmented testimony of a traumatic experience. It's mostly more desperate than dangerous--though that does add some tension to the robbery itself. Like poker, crime is better undertaken by professionals.


The second half of the movie is equally tense in theory, though less so in practice. Paced more like one of Ozu's post-War family stories, the back of That Night’s Wife is isolated to the family apartment where the little girl is convalescing. Shuji is followed home by a detective (Togo Yamamoto) determined to bring him and the money in. Some negotiating and the occasional metaphorical table turned buy the fugitive a few hours. The cop will wait to make his arrest until the doctor visits in the morning.

As nerve-wracking as that sounds, Ozu never leans heavily into the potential for violence. Everyone is more polite about it, partially to avoid waking the little girl, but mostly this is on Ozu. Perhaps were this a sound picture the dialogue could have bridged the gap, and we might better understand the meeting of the minds between the distraught mother and the cop. The main battle of wills here is not between Shoji and Detective Kagawa, but between the officer and the mother, Mayumi (Emiko Yagumo). As in many stories of this kind, the woman is the true backbone, holding together her family while her husband makes all the wrong choices. As an actress, Yagumo has an understated strength that makes her ideally suited for Ozu, so it’s surprising that she did not appear in more of his films (she’s also in Tokyo Song). Though Mayumi tries a thing or two more powerful than mere persuasion, like her husband, her amateur status gets in the way.

Still, there is a sunrise around the corner, and though some may find Ozu’s own lack of criminal acumen anticlimactic (and, indeed, the final scenes do drag out too long), there is something altogether pleasing about seeing this master tackle genre in his own inimitable fashion.


Friday, June 3, 2016

CLEAN, SHAVEN - #354


The plot is almost noirish in its conception. A mentally ill man is released from an institution only to discover his mother has given up his daughter for adoption, afraid her granddaughter will head down the same path as her son and unable to bear going through that again. The man goes looking for his little girl, but finds his illness is still an obstacle. Meanwhile, a private detective is also looking for the man, believing he is responsible for the murder of a different young girl.

It sounds like something that would have fit in nicely as an RKO B-picture ca. 1948, but the execution of Clean, Shaven, Lodge Kerrigan’s 1993 debut, is something altogether different. Rather than stylish shadows and expressionistic angles, Clean, Shaven is an impressionistic indie, intentionally unsettling, and ragged at the edges.


Peter Greene, a recognizable character actor probably best known for playing Zed in Pulp Fiction, stars as Peter Winter, the widower looking for his daughter. He believes that the hospital where he’s been a patient for the last several years put a receiver in his head and a transmitter in his finger, and as he searches the beachside town for his offspring, static-laden messages work their way into his brain. Kerrigan presents these as radiowaves, with the signal tuning in and out. The audio mix is key here. The director isolates different aspects of the soundtrack, turning up natural effects when the radio signal goes out, emphasizing Peter’s isolation and helplessness. Even when he is out of the hospital and free to roam, the elements contain him. Hahn Rowe’s haunted industrial music--included on the DVD as mp3s--likewise gives an added layer of disconnection, grating on the nerves and scraping at the ears.


It’s a technique that allows Kerrigan to make the subjective point of view evident for his audience. There is no all-seeing eye here, every aspect of Clean, Shaven is only indicative of its current focal character. When we are with Peter, we see the world as he sees it; when we are following the detective (Robert Albert), reality belongs to him. The separation of the two means the viewer is never entirely sure of what is true and what is imagined. The detective’s beliefs are just that: beliefs. He is no more reliable than Peter.


As the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you. Excepting the very real fact that one man actually is after him, it feels like everyone else is against Peter, as well. On one hand, it’s easy to see why he garners stares wherever he goes. He is acting oddly and emanating an uncomfortable energy. At the same time, as moviegoers, we are left to interpret how those people look at him, and in a way, see them through Peter’s eyes. Why do so many of the onlookers have malicious expressions? Are they part of the conspiracy to deprive Peter of his family?



Greene gives an intense performance, and perhaps befitting the plot, almost seems like he is in a different movie than the rest of the cast. Clean, Shaven is a scrappy indie, shot over the course of two years, and most of the actors are not just first-timers, but one-timers, never to be in another movie again. Their lack of experience shows. Dialogue is stilted, and the action is slow. Except for when Greene is onscreen by himself. He is fully committed, both mentally and physically. He looks alternately lost and absolutely present, his blue eyes emerging from the fog of schizophrenia, almost as if they were afraid for their own well-being and are trying to escape from his skull. Kerrigan sets up a couple of harrowing sequences where Peter tries to cut the implants from his body to shut out the noise. These moments are bloody and gross, with visceral practical effects that will compel you to look away.


Without Greene, though, I am not sure how much there is worth showing up for with Clean, Shaven. As a character study, it works; as a narrative, not so much. The inevitable collision between the detective and his quarry seems like an easy out, and the denouement where we are left to question the investigator’s own grasp of reality seems tacked-on and unearned. The stuff about the adoption isn’t all that convincing either. The crime movie plotting never lines up with the internal drama, and it seems like Kerrigan includes these contrivances just to buy himself more time to do what he really wants. That the intense character stuff is what he--and his actor--are really good at makes sense, yet this imbalance also makes the intriguing Clean, Shaven unsatisfying.



Saturday, May 28, 2016

THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO - #485


Of all of Whit Stillman’s films, The Last Days of Disco is by far my favorite. It’s the most full realization of his unique vision, and the most watchable on repeat viewings, offering multiple complete story arcs for its ensemble of characters. It was also what, for many years, we thought would be his final film. In a move worthy of Terrence Malick, Stillman would wait 14 years to release his next movie, 2012’s Damsels in Distress [review]. For all we knew, we were never getting him back.

Released in 1998, The Last Days of Disco takes us back to the early 1980s, when disco was enough of a cultural phenomenon to inspire mass hatred across America. (One spliced-in news report of a public burning of disco records is so exaggerated you’d not believe it were it not real.) The screenplay follows a handful of twentysomethings over the better part of a year, as they realize the young professional life they were promised is not exactly as described. They are fresh enough that what university their peers attended still matters, but on the precipice of having enough experience to discover it really doesn’t matter at all.


The group that Stillman follows congregates at a Studio 54-esque nightclub, mostly at the behest of Des (Chris Eigeman), one of the club’s managers. If they can’t get in through the front door, he sneaks them in through the back. This doesn’t always earns him points with his bosses. Junior ad man Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin) is persona non grata, but he keeps weaseling his way in, convinced it’s the access that keeps him employed.

More important to the social group are Alice (Chloe Sevigny, Manderlay [review]; Big Love [review]) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale, Snow Angels [review]), two assistant editors at a major publishing house who, despite attending the same college, weren’t really friends until now. Mirroring their roles in Stillman’s latest, Love & Friendship, Sevigny’s Alice is more naïve and impressionable, while Beckinsale’s Charlotte spews advice incessantly. Her helpful hints are often born of jealousy and intended to position herself better, whether she realizes it or not. In fact, as Alice’s fortunes rise both in romance and at work, Charlotte pushes to get in ahead of her. She even ends up dating Jimmy not long after Alice has moved on to Tom (Robert Sean Leonard, DeadPoet’s Society).



The characters in The Last Days of Disco bear a striking resemblance to those in Metropolitan [review], just a few years further down the line when they are no longer living at home and no longer able to rely on the same level of handouts from their family. All are anxious to make their mark in the world, but at the same time, they find that it’s not as easy as they expect. As Jimmy and Des complain at one point, they keep being branded as “yuppies” despite the fact that neither has a job that feels upwardly mobile or professional, much less lucrative.


But this is where disco comes in. Stillman has cast he discothèque as a metaphor for cultural change. The dancefloor bouillabaisse mixes all types together, and the scene offers different promises to each. Charlotte sees it as the harbinger of a real sexual revolution where women will have control, whereas Josh (Matt Keeslar), a freshman district attorney, sees it as a great equalizer where anyone can be whomever they want. His interpretation is particularly ironic, since being who they want to be is exactly what these young adults are failing at.


As episodic as Barcelona [review], and yet as socially contained as Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco provides Stillman with his most pronounced opportunity to place his idealized caricatures within the real world. Released from the manicured confines of their Manhattan apartments or the exile of a foreign land, the ensemble here steps closest to a recognizable world of any of the films. In fact, though released last, it fits the trilogy as a middle piece. A cameo of Audrey and Jack from Metropolitan shows us that there is some hope for these anxious wannabes, while an appearance by Ted from Barcelona (Taylor Nichols pulls double-duty) points a way of escape for the young men. The fact that unlike the other films, however, the characters all find their place by the end, or at least believable direction to the same, gives The Last Days of Disco a greater sense of finish. (We are still completely ignoring that Barcelona epilogue.)



By this go-around, Eigeman had perfected the fast-talking cynicism routine that had serviced him through Stillman’s previous efforts. Des fully embraces his role as a scoundrel, and his well-rehearsed routine of dumping women by telling them he has realized he is gay is tinged with equal parts savvy and machismo. And if we ever doubt Stillman’s sympathy for the cad, there is a Tarantino-worthy debate between Josh and Des over whether The Lady and the Tramp reinforces an unhealthy obsession with the bad boy or shows that a gadabout can really change.

The Last Days of Disco really belongs to Sevigny and Beckinsale, however. Though Alice bristles at being compared to a kindergarten teacher, Sevigny has never been more wholesome or confident, disguising her real charm as plainness. And Beckinsale’s performance is marvelously knowing. She treats Charlotte’s bullshit with the utmost sincerity, so much so that at times you can’t help but nod along and say, “Yeah, but she’s right, you know.” Frankly, by the end, I kind of feel like Charlotte and Des are the ones who’ve really got if figured out. They don’t see the value in conventional delusions.


The best part about The Last Days of Disco, though, is that it’s pragmatic without lacking hope. Stillman appears to judge his characters less, and to embrace their foibles without the wry irony of his earlier films. Perhaps it’s his own heartfelt  love of disco, just as he loves all dance crazes, and his full embrace of it that allows him to spread his wings a bit more. Or perhaps it’s just the confidence that comes from having made a few films. Regardless, The Last Days of Disco remains his crowning achievement. Nearly two decades later, it’s fun, and touching, and just plain likable.


Which makes it all the more ironic that if The Last Days of Disco has one real flaw, it’s that the dance-obsessed Stillman is not very good at directing the dancing itself. The club scenes are stiff and subdued, and never match up to the rhythms of the soundtrack. The discothèque is too brightly lit, removing any mystery or allure; it never feels like the type of place you’d really want to be. That may be the only advantage the “true-to-life” 54 has over its rival. Mark Christopher’s grim mess was released just a few months after Stillman’s triumph, to much more fanfare and failure proportional to the same. It’s coked out and seedy and mired in the 1970s, and Christopher makes Studio 54 look like a real good time, whereas Stillman is stepping forward toward the neon 1980s with little lingering nostalgia, a move that makes all the difference.



Sunday, May 22, 2016

BARCELONA - #807


I can’t imagine a more withering critique from a Whit Stillman character than Fred, the caustic American patriot in Stillman’s 1994 film Barcelona, realizing that the Spanish partygoers he’s with won’t dance because they consider it too early in the evening. To combat this ridiculous revelation, Fred puts on a limbo record and sets up a pool cue to serve as the stick everyone is intended to shimmy beneath. To say it doesn’t go down well would be an understatement.

Stillman’s second film in many ways could be seen as a sequel to his first, Metropolitan [review], even though they don’t quite share any of the same characters. The three movies in Criterion’s A Whit Stillman Trilogy are a thematic series, exploring different pockets of life in the 1980s. Barcelona, which is the middle film in terms of release but more likely the third in terms of the narrative timeline, breaks the tradition set by the others by not just taking place in Spain, but the American transplants who are visiting there, Fred (Chris Eigeman) and Ted (Taylor Nichols), are from Chicago rather than New York. Not that it matters in Stillman’s world. Absent of accent or dialect, the cousins are two pieces of the same upper crust that Stillman bakes for all his movies.


The movie begins with Navy man Fred arriving at Ted’s Barcelona flat on an advance mission to prepare the way for the arrival of his fleet. Set near the end of the Cold War, the visitors must face political unrest and anti-American sentiment. Ted is a salesman who has been living and working in Barcelona for a few years. He is acclimated to the scene, running in an international circle that mostly deals with foreign business, hanging out with women who present at trade shows (never was quite sure what that meant). Recently heartbroken, Ted is trying to live a religious-fueled life, theorizing that much of the failure of love in Western civilization is down to our obsession with physical beauty.

As a pair, Ted and Fred could easily be Jack and Nick from Metropolitan, with Nichols once again playing the neurotic thinker and Eigeman his sarcastic foil. Fred takes his job seriously, but little else, and quickly skewers his cousin’s philosophy while simultaneously sapping some of the vanilla out of Ted’s game by telling the ladies Ted is an S&M daddy with a leather fetish. Ted’s own commitment to his beliefs is ruined shortly thereafter, when the so-called homely girl stands him up and sends her pretty friend Montserrat (Tuska Bergen) in her stead. Ted falls for her, and gets serious fast--though their dating is complicated by the fact that Montserrat is in an open relationship with a reporter (Pep Munné) who not only is obsessed with beauty, but also American vulgarity and conspiracy theories. He believes Fred is a C.I.A. agent.


Barcelona is light on plot, but as you can tell, heavy on story. The episodic script follows the cousins over a month or so, focusing on their social life and their mishaps as strangers in a strange land. Unlike Metropolitan, which tracks one outsider infiltrating a small group, the leads here are outsiders in a much larger venue, with no real potential to fully assimilate. Amusingly, Stillman juxtaposes Fred’s boorish behavior with the bruised sensitivity of proud Americans who just can’t understand why everyone doesn’t think their cool. The way the two men get along with their Spanish lovers and their friends is the source of Barcelona’s humor and drama in equal measure. The separation is even evident in acting styles. The American’s are far more caricatured, the Spaniards more natural. (Including a pre-Mighty Aphrodite Mira Sorvino, wholly immersed in her role as a Barcelona girl who strikes Fred’s fancy.)


More important that the cultural divide, though, is the relationship between the cousins, which has vacillated between love and hate since they were kids. Ted can’t handle Fred’s humor, and believes him to take advantage, regularly borrowing without asking permission or returning what he took. Yet, they are also the only family they have and will stick with each other when it counts. Their realization of this--and where the two boys playing around overseas have to finally try to be adults--comes after a few misconceptions about Fred’s real identity leads to him being shot. Honestly, Barcelona suffers after this story turn and never really finds its balance. While the first 2/3 of the movie is fairly footloose and fancy free, the final third tries for a gravitas it never quite lands, complete with a pat coda that comes off as wholly unnecessary. Like the indie director was trying to placate his new corporate bosses.

Still, that first hour or so is what will draw you back to repeat viewings. In my write-up of Metropolitan, I compared Stillman’s creation of a self-contained world to that of Woody Allen’s, but I think with Barcelona there are more comparisons to be made between the two auteurs. Beginning with the simple credits (lettering on a black field, traditional music) and carrying through the light filmmaking approach--there are no zooms, and only the subtlest of camera movement--one can’t help but think of some of Allen’s more recent European-set movies, including Vicky Cristina Barcelona [review]. Ted and Fred could be the usual Allen stand-in cleaved in two--though, one would never mistake the writing for Woody. Stillman’s comic tone is far more droll.


Also like those recent Allen films, Barcelona seems more like a lark rather than one of Stillman’s more considered efforts. Which isn’t to suggest he didn’t take it seriously, but more that he maybe let the process take him where it would rather than bearing down on a greater meaning or story. It’s a carefree vacation abroad, with the extraneous philosophizing being merely a pretense. That stuff is the jazz that Fred so abhors, and we’re all really here to limbo.