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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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Whit Stillman
Kevin Scanlon
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

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

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]

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


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