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The Films Of Whit Stillman: A Retrospective

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist April 6, 2012 at 12:04PM

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.
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Last Days Of Disco

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"
Sony Classics "Damsels in Distress"

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

This article is related to: Whit Stillman, Features, The Essentials, Damsels In Distress


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