A Whit Stillman Fan is Born

Because of the tyranny of the New York/Los Angeles release, some lucky people will be able to see Whit Stillman’s new film Damsels in Distress this weekend, but I am not one of them. I suppose that I can wait a bit, seeing as I’m only a very recent fan; while some have been patiently waiting for more Whit Stillman since his last film came out in 1998, I only discovered the pleasures of his style this past December, when the MacGuffin crew watched his first film, Metropolitan, for a Christmastime roundtable.

“There’s something a tiny bit arrogant about people going around feeling sorry for other people they consider less fortunate.”

Although from my perspective just about any film that incorporates the ennui of rich white dudes in its themes starts with one strike against it, the undercurrent of gentle irony in Metropolitan saves it from veering into the abyss. The story is of a group of friends home from college for the holidays, dressing up to lounge around each other’s Upper East Side apartments or go to fashionable places in Manhattan for no real purpose other than that’s what people do. They are at the time of their lives when stress about pairing off into couples is only just starting to creep in, but the rules of dating are growing wearisome. They perceive, somewhat accurately, that they’re the last of a certain kind of generation, when debutante balls matter and ingrained social status is everything. They speak a lot about what sorts of changes to society the future might bring.

If all this were played for drama, I’d probably get fed up. But we are in smart comic territory, and the storylines involving who likes whom and who was slighted when and who’s worthy of this or that are all set-ups for continuously flowing, highly amusing dialogue. As a movie fan I fall most squarely into the category of dialogue junkie, and I have no issues with dialogue that isn’t naturalistic. I want it to be clever and profound and funny and distinct, not sound like any random people chatting on the bus. In a Whit Stillman film, I’m awash in everything I want from characters speaking to each other.

“You mean it’s a complete cliché? All women recent college graduates drink vodka tonics, or something like that?”

After deciding to make Stillman one of the directors for my year-long director-of-the-month blog project (he was for March; not shockingly, I’m behind), I rented The Last Days of Disco and Barcelona, his other two films. I watched The Last Days of Disco first, and found it to be completely delightful. Once again, he’s exploring the end of an era through the eyes of a group of young people. Young professionals Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale, in perhaps the first role I’ve ever actively liked her in) are sort-of friends trying to make progress in the publishing world by day, and going disco dancing/guy hunting by night. They frequent a club where lower-level manager Des (Stillman favorite Chris Eigeman, ever the blowhard of the group) constantly gets in trouble for letting friends in for free. We follow the pairings- and breakings up of a loose network of friends and acquaintances surrounding these three, set to a bounty of awesome dance songs of the ’70s.

In Metropolitan, it seemed that all of the characters took themselves and their ideas too seriously. Here, that type of character comes up against another type: Alice doesn’t take herself seriously enough. Her journey toward realizing she really deserves better than the friends and potential lovers she’s got provides a throughline that anchors the film, and elevates it above Metropolitan. While Alice can hold her own in the crossfire of Stillman’s dialogue (that’s her line I’ve quoted above), she often chooses to mostly just listen. Because Chloë Sevigny is a remarkable actress who can convey a lot through just the way her character listens, we never miss how Alice is always key to a scene, even if she’s being quieter than everyone else. She is the character the audience can latch onto. This character arc I really cared about, the consistent intelligent humor, and the sincere appreciation of the disco scene combined to make a film I thought was truly great.

“Oh, shootings, yes. But that doesn’t mean Americans are more violent than other people. We’re just better shots.”

Doubling back, I visited Stillman’s second film, Barcelona. Though set in Spain, it is still about a specific type of American life, as well as the way the outside world sees America—both in general, and at this specific time, as the Cold War is ending. Ted (Taylor Nichols) is a salesman of some sort stationed in Barcelona for his Chicago-based company, and he takes his job and the philosophy of sales quite seriously. His cousin Fred (Chris Eigeman), a Navy officer and world-class freeloader, shows up to stay for a while. He’s apparently on assignment scouting out the area for an upcoming shore leave. This may sound like a fairly cushy gig, but Fred is the type who will always manage to get into trouble. Incapable of maintaining a low profile or keeping his mouth shut, he soon has many lefty-types angry at him and has deeply complicated Ted’s already struggling social life. Eigeman is a master at playing this type of sincerely obnoxious character, but it’s Nichols’s earnest and committed Ted that holds the film together.

Barcelona doesn’t work quite as well as Stillman’s Metropolitan or The Last Days of Disco, because as it nears its end it seems to lose the sense of deliberateness that is felt even in the unconventional structure of the other films. The ending feels unearned. Its female characters are also comparatively undeveloped, representing ideas of what Spanish women are like more than fully-formed individuals. Actresses Mira Sorvino and Tushka Bergen do their best, but the point of view of the film is more about what the men think of them than what they want for themselves. Given the dynamic female characters in The Last Days of Disco, that was a disappointment for me. But it makes me all the more eager to see the decidedly female-centric Damsels in Distress, Stillman’s first film in 14 years.

Stillman’s first three films begin with characters surrounded by people they haven’t really chosen for themselves—the friends society and circumstance thrust upon them, or the relatives nature dictated. Through that, some characters will and some won’t succeed in forming more meaningful relationships. I’ll be interested to see if and how this theme comes up in his newest work. Whether or not it ends up falling in line with his earlier films or representing a departure, I’m very glad he finally made another film.


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Other projects:

Downton Gabby: podcasting about Downton Abbey from a funny, foul-mouthed, feminist perspective

Quick Lit: reading one short story a day in 2015

Grand Dames: collecting sundry achievements of admirable women

The MacGuffin: archive of my days as a film critic

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