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Why Whit Stillman’s Work Endures After All These Similar Movies: On THE COSMOPOLITANS

Why Whit Stillman's Work Endures After All These Similar Movies: On THE COSMOPOLITANS

There are plenty of reasons not to watch The Cosmopolitans. The director of this Amazon pilot, Whit Stillman, has been issuing films about the upper-upper-class
since the early 1990s, and at a time at which the country in which the films are
released continues to go through severe economic duress, and at which the
divisions between the wealthy and the non-wealthy continue to grow sharper,
viewers might well choose to watch other pilots; after all, several have been released very recently. Additionally,
one might say his characters tend to hew to the same characteristics, time
after time: disaffected, confused, fortunate, unreliable, unpredictable, and
yet also quite predictable. And the list of dissuading elements goes on.
However, when I watch his films, as I continue to do, I think of a couple of
comments I received, oddly enough, from writing teachers. One pertained to what
the teacher called “the courage to be quiet.” In context, the comment
referenced being able to resist the impulse to write loud, flashy,
attention-grabbing, surreal work, as I was doing, and challenging myself to
write in a softer register. In terms of Stillman’s films the phrase could refer
to filming stories in which no one really does
anything, if “doing something” means saving the world or fighting
10-storey-tall robots or jetting between dimensions or inhabiting John
Malkovich’s brain or seeing a double of one’s self on a weekend retreat—or
working with, and competing with, that double. In a climate in which concepts
are important in films and TV shows, and original concepts sell (and why shouldn’t they?), making a
film in which problems are local, dialogue is clever, and no one moves terribly
quickly does indeed take courage.

The pilot of The Cosmopolitans is plenty quiet. Its story,
such as it is, involves a threesome of wealthy young men who live in Paris.
It’s not clear that they have jobs; it’s not clear that they do much during the
day, besides taking language courses and pursuing women. The men are fairly
prototypical Stillman characters. Jimmy, played with considerable energy and
nail-biting nervousness by Adam Brody, is looking for love, finding it each
minute, and then losing it. His tall, thin, fair-complexioned friend Hal (Jordan Rountree), who resembles a
cross between a Russian wolfhound and a human, is similarly unlucky; his
girlfriend Clemence has left him, and he hangs on her every text message in the
hopes she might be contacting him. Their Italian acquaintance Sandro (Adriano Giannini) seems marginally
more worldly but similarly unfocused, similarly single, and comfortable in the
high-end world they live in. As you can see, there isn’t much drama here.
There’s no hook. There’s no rush to create a fraught story within the first ten
minutes. There are no twists. There’s intrigue, but all of the boring, human
sort. And yet at the same time, the pilot is very watchable, because it is, as
famous American expatriate Hemingway might have said (and indeed one of his
descendants stars here), true. Sharp as the witticisms these
characters exchange might be, and they are sharp, they are memorable primarily because
they emanate from a firm knowledge of the class Stillman is making films about.
Similarities and differences with Woody Allen have been noted, but the chief
difference is this, and it turns out to be the key to why Allen’s films have
declined in quality in recent years: Allen does not know the class he is
filming, the European artists, the young, independently wealthy protagonists,
and his is not the kind of imagination which can recreate experiences he has
not had, or had a portion of. Stillman is, to honor an ancient and shady chestnut, writing about what he knows.

Even-keeled as the dramatic topography may be in this pilot,
Stillman manages to insert some literary characters, figures with some breadth
and potential. Chloe Sevigny, in what might be her best performance since Kids,
plays a fashion journalist who radiates a mood of anger, bitterness and possible sexual
frustration from her first appearance; she says everything through clenched teeth
and what would seem to be too much caffeine, speaking truth but without caring
about its damage when spoken, criticizing the three single fellows for not
having “figured things out” yet. Freddy Asblom plays Fritz, a shifty,
bottomlessly wealthy young snot whose life revolves around cocktail parties,
philandering, romantic entanglements; he quite memorably loses his poise as he throws Sandro out of a party at his home for bringing drug dealers there, all of his previous oily delivery reduced to some barked
monosyllables. And Carrie MacLemore brings us Aubrey, a young woman on her own from Alabama, living
with a passive-aggressive boyfriend, or perhaps not living with him, or maybe
both; she’s played openly and with memorable plainness here by MacLemore, though she is a type who has appeared in
Stillman’s films before, moneyed, intelligent, not quite sure of herself, and
yet challenging enough to hold her own against Stillman’s young,
hyper-articulate bucks.

The second comment Stillman’s work makes me think of was one
I received much earlier, and which is perhaps more relevant to the work at
hand. During a discussion of class in fiction, the teacher suggested that one shouldn’t
be biased towards a writer’s work because the writer might be wealthy and might
depict people who are young, happy, and wealthy; neither the writer nor the
characters can help being that way. A sage observation: one can learn a lot by appreciating a work’s virtues before deriding it for characteristics which may set you off in some private, personal way. Stillman’s films are aggressively, steadily clever and perceptive, and this pilot is no different. They move forward less than they burrow in, one comment leading to another comment, until a final insight is reached that may be surprisingly dark but still somewhat profound. After all is through, the class of these characters, their sameness, their lack of what many people would consider to be real problems, bcomes beside the point. The wit of Stillman’s scripts, as well as the sense of introspection that wit creates, becomes sufficiently moving on its own, and the rest is just gravy, or in this case, jus.

Max Winter is the Editor of Press Play.

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