Before there was Woody Allen’s 2008 Vicky Cristina Barcelona, there was Whit Stillman’s far rawer, less warm and fuzzy Barcelona, released in 1994. Set in 1980s Barcelona, the film explores a period of particularly notable anti-American sentiment. While marketing/sales rep Ted Boynton (Taylor Nichols) does his best to keep a low profile while working abroad for his Chicago-based company, the unexpected arrival of his naval officer cousin, Fred Boynton (Chris Eigeman), throws a wrench into Ted’s plans for tranquil solitude.
Ted and Fred (yes, the name pairing somewhat conjures the image of Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum) have had a longstanding tension over an event that happened between them when they were ten years old–that event being Fred stealing Ted’s kayak, but, according to Fred, simply borrowing it. Nonetheless, Ted can’t deny that a certain companionship has been missing from his life after a disastrous relationship with a woman named Betty and his newfound philosophy that, “I’m beginning to reconsider my entire attitude toward female beauty. I think it’s very bad, really. You see a beautiful girl and you’re immediately subject to all these emotions–some of them very powerful, almost uncontrollable. You haven’t even spoken with the girl and already you want to marry and spend the rest of your life with her. This inordinate concern for physical beauty has wrecked more lives than–” Fred cuts him off, “Wrecked?” Ted trails off from his diatribe as they decide to leave, at which time Fred is called the Spanish word for fascist, “facha,” prompting him to insist on getting another drink elsewhere to recover from this traumatizing incident.
At the next bar, Ted continues expounding on his new plan in dealing with women. “I just think this thing of always falling in love with incredibly attractive girls is really bad. Maybe it’s about resolving to go out only with plain or even rather homely girls. I’ve got a real romantic illusion problem. Instead of a fantasy built on the pretty slope of an eyebrow or the curl of an upper lip–to see the real person, maybe even look into her eyes and see her soul.” Of course, Fred thinks Ted’s theory is crazy and tells him it’s just as possible for him to meet the woman of his dreams in a pretty girl format–which, inevitably, he does after meeting Montserrat Raventos (Tushka Bergen), a “trade fair girl” who meets him at a movie theater in the stead of her “homely” friend, only to learn she still has a boyfriend, the philandering, American-hating journalist Ramon (Pep Munné).
Meanwhile, Fred has found a romantic entanglement of his own upon encountering one of Ted’s acquaintances, Marta Ferrer (Mira Sorvino, sporting a believable accent), on the street as he’s crossing out anti-American graffiti. As Fred and Ted sink deeper and deeper into the Barcelonan lifestyle–and the growing feelings they have for their significant others–their cultural differences become all the more glaring, with Fred defending, “‘Yankee’ and ‘gringo’ are obviously pejorative, but it’s the standard dictionary term that’s the most insulting of all. ‘Estadunidense.’ Dense. D-E-N-S-E. It’s the same spelling. Dense: thick, stupid. Every time you hear it. Estadunidense-dense-dense. It’s like a direct slap in the face. It’s incredible.”
The more their hearts become involved, the less Fred and Ted seem to get along–especially once Fred confesses to being in love with Montserrat. Plus, matters intensify when Montserrat’s boyfriend prints an accusatory article about Fred being in the CIA. This eventually leads to an assassination attempt on Fred after he’s kicked out of Ted’s apartment and sees Marta cheating on him when he goes to her for refuge.
While Fred is in a coma, Ted feels incredible guilt for falsely accusing him of stealing some money from his stash (it turns out to be Marta who was responsible) and vows to stay by his side until he recovers. Some of the trade fair girls come by to help keep watch, including one who ends up falling in love with Ted–which aids in cushioning the blow in his loss of Montserrat.
The fact that Fred would be gunned down over hearsay/simply being an American is not something that was unbelievable then, or now. More than ever, anti-American sentiment seems to pervade the global perception of a country that, as Marta points out, consists of “all those loud, badly dressed, fat people watching their eighty channels of television and visiting shopping malls. The plastic throw-everything-away society with its notorious violence and racism. And finally, the total lack of culture.” But at least we have Whit Stillman movies to prove this generalization wrong.