The Films Of Whit Stillman: Retrospective

Charlie: Do you know the film, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise?” When I first saw that title, I though, “Finally, someone is going to tell the truth about the bourgeoisie.” What a disappointment. It would be hard to imagine a less fair or accurate portrait.
Cynthia: Well of course, Bunuel is a surrealist. Despising the bourgeoisie is part of their credo.
Nick: (disgusted) Where do they get off?
Charlie: The truth is the bourgeoisie does have a lot of charm.
Nick: Of course it does, the surrealists were just a bunch of social climbers.
Whit Stillman, “Metropolitan”

Famously dubbed the “the WASP Woody Allen” and the “Dickens of people with too much inner life” by reviewers and critics when his comedy-of-manners indie pictures arrived in the early 1990s, Whit Stillman’s ironic, clever and urbane examinations of upward and downward social mobility and the shallow concerns and preoccupations of the young, privileged and affluent won him a legion of adoring fans as soon as his first film premiered at Cannes. Evincing a polished sensibility through a send-up and celebration of the often ridiculous customs and etiquettes of upper-class social orders, Stillman is also a champion of the overlooked merits of conservative status quo conventions. His debut “Metropolitan” and the equally wry “Barcelona” were both critical and (modest) commercial hits, but 1998’s “The Last Days of Disco” was tepidly received and a commercial flop, and Stillman went more than a decade without making a follow-up (which is a shame because it’s just as arch and witty as anything he ever made).

According to a recent New York Times profile, the director had moved to Paris not long after “The Last Days of Disco” and he told the Village Voice last month that, “I was kind of feeling beaten up after ‘Disco.’ I felt we were unfairly treated. It’s really tough, making a film. So I did want some time just to exist and to write.” He penned TV pilots to keep him afloat, and even had an offer to direct an episode of “Sex and the City,” but otherwise, only faint word of potential projects leaked over the years. But after a restoration of “Metropolitan” started to do the rounds, and as the critical reputation of ‘Disco’ was restored thanks to a Criterion Collection reissue, Stillman found himself back in the spotlight. And at a 2010 party at the L.A. Film Festival, Stillman was introduced by “Tiny Furniture“/”Girls” writer/director Lena Dunham to her producer Alicia Van Couvering, who helped Stillman get his fourth feature, “Damsels In Distress,” a script he’d been working for years, in motion, and the film went before cameras that year.

The college-set comedy teamed him up with a new generation of talent, including mumblecore darling Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody and Analeigh Tipton (with cameos from Aubrey Plaza and Alia Shakwat, among others), and after hitting the festival circuit last year, it’s arriving in theaters this weekend. And as our review demonstrates, it’s more than worth the lengthy wait, serving up a timeless comedy that, were it not for a few anal sex jokes (which have been trimmed down for release anyway), almost could have been made at any time in the last half-century. With Stillman returning to theaters, it felt like it was time to look back across the director’s (admittedly small) filmography to map the path to ‘Damsels.’ Hopefully, before too long, there’ll be plenty more output to add to this list. And for more from Stillman, check out our recent interview with the director.

Metropolitan” (1990)
“Is our language so impoverished that we have to use acronyms of French phrases to make ourselves understood?”
Made in the late ‘80s for a reportedly paltry sum of $100,000 (Stillman sold his apartment and friends invested to finance it), shot in New York streets and apartments (courtesy of friends and family) and featuring unknown actors (that would go on to be Stillman regulars), Stillman’s debut film went on to defy all low-rent indie expectations when it was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar in 1991. Chronicling the beginning of debutante ball season in late ‘80s Manhattan for the preppy and wealthy socialite scene, “Metropolitan” begins with Tom Townsend (Edward Clements, who all but quit acting afterwards), a middle-class Princetonian outsider with lefty socialist pretensions and daddy issues who inadvertently falls in with a group of young, Upper West Side UHB’s (“urban haute bourgeoisies,” as coined by one of the characters in the film) known as the SFRP (the “Sally Fowler Rat Pack”), much to his own chagrin. While contemptuous of deb season and this crust of upper-class New Yorkers, Tom’s affection for how the other half lives eventually begins to grow on him, including an attachment to the obnoxious boor Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman oozing acerbic charm) who’s hell bent on ruining the reputation of a rival socialite mostly out of jealousy. The rest of the SFRP includes the awkward intellectual Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols), Fowler (Dylan Hundley), the uptight meddler Jane Clark (Allison Parisi) and quiet wallflower Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina), who falls for Tom despite his infatuation with the unavailable and legendary man-eater Serena Slocum (Ellia Thompson). Stillman uses the “object of affection” story as a jumping off point to explore issues of money, class and oddly enough, the virtues of being a “good” person, in between literary references and Stillman’s view of these people as both ridiculous and sincere. Filled with arrogant and superficial characters that repeat ridiculous pseudo-intellectual assertions, it’s difficult to relate to this world, but Stillman imbues his characters with an affectionate reality that makes them rather lovable and endlessly quotable. [A-]

Barcelona”  (1994)
“I think it’s well-known that anti-Americanism has its roots in sexual impotence, at least in Europe.”
Class and social status dovetail rather beautifully with family relations, politics and cross-cultural barriers in “Barcelona,” arguably Stillman’s best film, yet one never quite recognized as such (perhaps because his other two are Criterion approved). But its sophisticated and witty observations and commentary on cultural (both American and Spanish) self-absorption and differences are rather wry and deliciously sharp. A tart fish-out-of water romantic comedy, “Barcelona” centers on Ted, a priggish, conservative, yuppie (Taylor Nichols) working in the Barcelona branch of his Chicago sales office whose life is deeply disrupted when his shallow jackass cousin Fred (Chris Eigeman), a U.S. Navy officer, comes to mooch and crash in his apartment. While skirt-chasing, bar-hopping and philosophizing about love and life across the beautiful Spanish city, the two cousins inadvertently (all Fred’s fault) provoke the volatile ire of the post-Franco political climate in Spain leading to anti-American sentiments and dangers much more perilous than simple heartache and chasing girls. Serving up the dictionary definition of the ungrateful, unwanted guest who overstays his welcome (not to mention “the ugly american”), while Nichols is deeply convincing as the idealistic salesman with an almost devoted approach to sales (but not so lucky in love), it’s Eigeman who once again wickedly steals the show as the ignorant, yet smug American, proving that while Stillman is known for his writing, he could also coach actors into pitch-perfect performances. Cultivated and clever, “Barcelona” is an amusing, yet insightful look at cultural identity and lost-in-translation perceptions.  [A]“The Last Days of Disco” (1998)
“It’s really important there be more group social life. Not just all this ferocious pairing off.”
Stillman’s final film in his “Doomed Bourgeois In Love” triptych  — made for his biggest budget of $8 million — “The Last Days of Disco” follows a group of recent grads navigating the rules and social pecking orders of the New York nightlife in the waning days of disco’s popularity in the early ’80s. And yes, while it also humorlessly depicts them falling in and out of each other’s beds and on and off the dance floor, there is a strong hint of melancholy throughout the film. Nostalgic, but not sentimental, not only does ‘Disco’ mark the death of an era, but the death of an ideal, and therefore a newfound liberty. A side dish to all the talk of sex and class and dating the right guy or gal, Stillman also looks at the disco era through a philosophical prism — both sincere and comical — that views the heyday as a social utopia, an ideology and a lifestyle, and not just a fad. Chloë Sevigny plays the mousey ingénue Alice Kinnon, who is paired up with the callow and self-absorbed frenemy Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), and together they are surrounded by a bevy of would-be suitors, including up-and-coming ad exec Jimmy Steinway (Mackenzie Astin), self-proclaimed “nightclub flunkie” Des McGrath (Chris Eigeman), potentially unhinged Assistant D.A. Josh Neff (Matt Keesler), and “Departmental” Dan Powers (Matt Ross). Stillman’s picture came out just three months after the much-derided Mike Myers drama on a similar era “54,” but unlike its rival, Stillman pretty much refrains from the hedonistic examination of the club’s notorious history, being much more interested in the social mores of the post-college set, the brief window of optimism this era allows them and the inevitable decline of the disco scene. Aided in no small way with a killer soundtrack that shimmies seamlessly from one golden ’70s hit into another, while the disco is fun, it’s the deadpan conversations and deeply ironic situations that truly shimmer. Both Beckinsale’s Charlotte and Eigeman’s Des have their share of classic Stillman lines in “The Last Days of Disco,” with captivating, if misguided rants on sex, love and friendship. But it’s actually the overly sincere, slightly ridiculous Josh, who seems to be the director’s mouthpiece, and his “Lady and the Tramp” analysis, a hilarious love triangle metaphor, that is one of the highlights of Stillman’s typically incisive and eloquent script (it’s also a bit meta with sly references to his first two films including a brief cameo by Carolyn Farina from “Metropolitan”). “The Last Days of Disco” was unfortunately a financial flop in North America, making only $3 million, but this comical requiem for a golden age of socializing was given a new lease on life to eager audiences (new and old) by Criterion in 2009. [A]

Damsels in Distress” (2012)
“I don’t really like the word depressed, I prefer to say that I’m in a tailspin.”
Had “Damsels in Distress” turned out to be a misfire, it wouldn’t have been a huge surprise: Stillman wouldn’t have been the only filmmaker to return from a lengthy absence with his skills dulled by time. A premiere at the closing night of the Venice Film Festival didn’t seem to bode especially well, given the generally disappointing tone of festival closing movies, which normally take place long after most of the press have moved on to other pastures. Fortunately, “Damsels in Distress” was no such thing, delivering a college-set comedy that felt like Stillman moving towards some kind of wider accessibility, while remaining firmly inside a universe of his own creation. The story follows Lily (Analeigh Tipton), who upon arriving at Seven Oaks College, falls in with a trio of Queen Bees — well-meaning Violet (Greta Gerwig), fiery Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and dim-bulb Heather (Carrie MacLemore) — who take on both their boorish male counterparts and the problem of depression, only for one of their number to fall prey to the latter. It might look and feel like a sort of teen movie (and the film is arguably broader than anything he’s made before), but it’s really more indebted to an old-fashioned comedy of manners than it is to John Hughes, with Stillman’s typically sharp script delving into the self-absorbed minds of another collection of inspired comic creations. Despite none of the cast being out of short trousers the last time he had a movie in theaters, Stillman has found a new set of muses, with Greta Gerwig in particular fitting right at home as Violet. Alongside Tipton, they bring enough empathy to give the audience a way into Stillman’s stylized world. While perhaps not the most substantial of Stillman’s films (and the director has not taken to digital photography well — the film is overlit and ugly for the most part), it is uproariously funny, climaxing in a final dance number that sits among the director’s finest moments. [B+]

The Films That Could Have Been
Stillman wasn’t entirely idle in his 14-year absence: there were several projects that came close to getting made without ever quite coming together, plus lets not forget that he also wrote a novelization of his last movie called “The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards” that was published in 2000. In the late 1990s, he was said to be penning an adaptation of Anchee Min‘s Shanghai-set memoir “Red Azalea.” Stillman told us last year that the project was something that he “wouldn’t pursue,” although he did suggest that he may return to the Chinese Cultural Revolution setting for another project.

Perhaps his best known near-miss was “Little Green Men,” an adaptation of the novel by Christopher Buckley (“Thank You For Smoking“) about a political talk show host that is abducted by aliens. Stillman officially signed on in 2006, and what he describes as a “billionaire” signed on to finance the picture, but the film never quite came together, and by 2009 he was off the project. Another recurring film is “Dancing Mood,” a Jamaica-set drama about the church dancehall scene in the 1960s, which also got as far as pre-production before financing collapsed. That one is, however, still an ongoing concern, with the director telling us in a recent interview that “I hope to make another film before then and then tackle that one.”

And that next film? Well, it’s unclear at this point, but it sounds like it might be a project that would team up Gerwig and Brody from “Damsels in Distress,” Chloë Sevigny from “The Last Days of Disco” and Stillman regular Chris Eigeman. But that project is still at the scripting stage, and Stillman also told the Village Voice recently that there’s another proejct, which he describes as “sort of Oscar Wildean, based on material in the public domain by someone else… escapism for the college-graduate set.”

– Rodrigo Perez, Sam Chater, Oliver Lyttelton

8/7/15 Bonus:  Listen To The Film Society Lincoln Center 25th anniversary cast interview below.

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