Spanish Acquisition

It's "the last decade of the Cold War" (as the opening titles inform us) in post-Franco Spain. Anti-U.S. sentiment is sky-high. Fred, the gung-ho advance man for the U.S. Navy's Sixth Fleet, has just arrived in Barcelona, showing up unannounced at the apartment of his less-than-thrilled cousin Ted, a sales rep for the Illinois High-Speed Motor Corp. Priggish Ted is a little on the decorous side; he probably read Boy's Life as an adolescent and took it too much to heart. He needs order in his life; you get the feeling that if he hadn't succeeded in business, he might have ended up in a cult. "In sales I found not just a job, but a culture," he enthuses. "I love coming to the office early and catching up on the overnight Telex action."

Ted feels put upon by Fred's arrival, but the Navy man promises his stay will be brief, no more than three days. "Guests, like fish, begin to stink after the third day," the salesman warns his visiting cousin.

Impending stench or no, Ted takes Fred, resplendent in his Naval dress uniform (the same one Tom Cruise wore in A Few Good Men), sightseeing in his car. The Gothic architecture, the cathedrals, the Roman walls -- all merit disinterested uh-huhs. Ted, guilt-ridden after a sexually charged encounter with a beautiful woman, finally gets a rise out of his passenger when he divulges his resolution to "only go out with plain or even homely girls."

"Pathetic," assesses Fred.
Apolitical Ted tries to explain the anti-American sentiment to Fred, who cannot believe what he is hearing. They drive past a wall upon which someone has scrawled "Yankee pigs go home" in Spanish. Fred, infuriated, forces his cousin to stop the car. With a great deal of effort, he scratches at the word cerdos (pigs) and, with a felt-tipped pen, alters it to read ciervos (deer).

"Yankee deers go home?" wonders Ted. "I don't think that's much of an improvement."

A carload of revelers -- all women -- on their way to a costume party pulls up. "Nice costume," deadpans Marta as she sizes up the Navy man with a carnal leer. The thought that Fred's uniform might be the real thing never crosses her mind.

The boys follow the girls to the party. Soon Fred and Marta are an item. Ted meets a woman plain enough for him, but on their second date she sends a friend in her place. To Ted's chagrin, Montserrat, the substitute date, is beautiful. She also has a boyfriend, the womanizing leftist journalist Ram centsn. "You're very perceptive," Ted tells Montserrat. "I don't like that." Of course they fall in love.

Welcome to Barcelona, the new Whit Stillman film, set in the romantic European city of the same name. Like that northern Spanish port, the film oozes sophisticated charm and sensuality, plus layers of wit, insight, and cutting sarcasm. But to appreciate fully either the movie or the city, you first must be willing to give yourself over to their singular rhythms.

You know a filmmaker really has made it when the mere mention of his name conjures up a mental sketch of his work. Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, John Waters, Spike Lee, Joel and Ethan Coen, Jim Jarmusch, John Sayles, Quentin Tarantino A their styles are so distinctive that you know a lot about their films before you've seen the first frame of their most recent work. It might be time to add Whit Stillman's name to the list, even though he's made only two trips to the plate. Just don't make the same mistake I did during a recent interview and call the audacious writer-director-producer-editor-you-name-it an auteur.

"I prefer 'author,'" Stillman corrected me, wrinkling his nose at the snootier French term. Having studied film for four years at UM and the University of Southern California during Truffaut's mid-to-late-Seventies heyday, I can't help it if the term has been etched into my cerebrum alongside "mise en scäne." But I will do my best to respect his wish. After all, this is not a man who chooses words lightly. The cerdos/ciervos business, for example, is pure Stillman. "I take great pains to construct dialogue that sounds exactly right," explains the 42-year-old father of two. "I often say it aloud and listen to it through headphones. My eight-year-old daughter starts screaming, 'Daddy's talking to himself!' I've always admired people who can extemporize; I've seen a few Washington lawyers on television who are just shooting from the hip, and they're so eloquent it's amazing."

What's this? A filmmaker with a word of praise for lawyers? Like Barcelona's American protagonists, Stillman does not appear to care one whit about appearing hip or politically correct. Hollywood is a liberal town. Stillman's characters drop conservative bons mots like tapas.

"Americans aren't more violent than other people!" deadpans Fred at one point. "They're just better shots." Later, at a party, he opines that "anti-Americanism has its roots in sexual impotence." Rush Limbaugh, eat your heart out.

Stillman knows better than to stack the deck by making Fred too much of a yahoo, though. He has strong opinions and is not shy about voicing them, and he never will be a model of tact. But in the course of the movie Fred learns to temper his knee-jerk responses with something akin to a newfound respect for those around him. He learns, he grows. And while the character's views do not perfectly mirror his creator's, there are similarities. Both harbor strong opinions that do not exactly endear them to the political left, in Spain or Hollywood. But the difference is that Stillman has a sense of humor.

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