As the film opens, we are told that this is the last decade of the cold war. There is a shot of a rather unimpressive explosion at the American Library and of a young Spaniard throwing a rock through the window of a small IBM office. It seems an odd note on which to begin a romantic comedy. Delivered in a succession of un-scored, stills, it quickly falls to the background where--of course--it subtly colors almost every other incident in the film.
Ted Boynton, an American sales rep from Chicago, is working on assignment in Barcelona, Spain. His cousin, Fred, a naval Lieutenant sent to carry out advance work in public relations before the arrival of the 6th fleet, has just arrived and is looking for a place to stay. It is an uneasy arrangement; they have been disputing and caviling since childhood. And continue to do so throughout the film. They are ruminators with long memories who share very few opinions. And when they meet Marta and Monserrat, "cool trade fare girls," there can be no statement, no thought, no act without commentary. So the film is largely composed of scenes in which Ted and Fred philosophize on love, beauty, business and cultural differences as they court--in tandem--Marta and Monserrat. And all of this transpires in fascinating, pretty little vignettes whose comedy gradually mounts and mounts and mounts until the sinister spin of the background events overtake the foregoing romantic sweep. How remarkable it is that we should pass--in only a very few minutes--from comedy to tragedy to comedy, and do so with the grace and majestic drama of a cloud momentarily passing before the sun.
The great sweet beauty of this film, however, is the marriage of such engaging dialogue, such earnest deadpan deliveries shot in such eerie clarity--one reminiscent of the interiors in Dutch genre painting: clean, homely, homiletic. It is done with a kind of professorial remove: there is story followed by commentary, then more story followed by commentary. A still shot is followed by a people shot which is followed by a still shot and so on; but they are coupled in such a fashion that the shot of the characters is the only real animation, the only real action, the only real drive--giving conversation an otherwise missing dynamic. And this is a rare feat in modern American film. Ordinarily, romantic comedies depend upon mishaps, mistakes and misunderstandings, exaggerated out of all proportion, for all of their narrative beats and most of their laughter. In Barcelona, however, the physical climb and fall of the drama is entirely real, if not ordinary. Dilation and expansion of fact are reserved for the wit of the banter, the voice-over commentaries and the emotionally savory resolve. All in all, Barcelona is both beautiful and funny. It manages to turn a suite of classically static images--bronzed, burnished, melancholy--upon a fast-driving dialogue endowed with the modest but enhancing artificiality of a painting, a novel or--better yet--an infinitely refined film.