Whit Stillman and the discreet charm of the urban haute bourgeoisie

A Whit Stillman Trilogy debuts on Blu-ray and DVD from the Criterion Collection on April 19, 2016.


He’s been called “the WASP Woody Allen,” but I prefer my friend Ron Reed’s moniker for Whit Stillman: “the Jane Austen of indie film.”


True, the characters of Stillman’s first three films—sometimes called the “Doomed Bourgeois in Love Trilogy”—are as introspective and hyper-articulate as Allen’s and often as existentially anxious about life in a postmodern world.


Two of the three, Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco, share Allen’s beloved New York setting; the third, Barcelona, is about Americans abroad, like many of Allen’s films (Allen even made a romantic comedy set in Barcelona with the name of the city in the title, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, about a pair of Americans there).


Stillman is also, like Allen, very much a postmodern, though their perspectives on postmodernity couldn’t be more different. Both are also easier to enjoy (or not enjoy; my lady, Suz, can’t stand Stillman’s relentlessly clever dialogue) than to illuminate. John Lahr once quipped of Allen, “A plethora of people have written about Woody Allen, and they either like him or dislike him. But no one has yet managed, I think, to interpret him.” This may be equally true of Stillman; at any rate, I have read quite a bit of interesting and worthwhile writing about him, but nothing so far that offers a key to his work.


One thing that can be said about Allen is that the default perspective of his films, whether comedies or dramas, is nihilistic. Some of his films could be called comedies of manners, but he often dispenses with one of the genre’s defining traits—indeed, the defining trait of all comedy in the classical sense—namely, the happy ending.


Stillman’s sensibility can be as absurdist as Allen’s, and his characters may at times express nihilistic views, but where Allen gleefully cross-examines conventional ideas and attitudes, Stillman gleefully cross-examines the postmodern erosion of conventional ideas and attitudes. Stillman’s comedies of manners, like Allen’s, aren’t quite traditional examples of the genre—but they always have happy endings, and, like Austen, he sticks to that one genre. This seems to be a philosophical choice; Stillman has said he isn’t interested in working in other genres.


In Allen’s films, it usually makes sense to throw off constraints of conventional behavior. Stillman—who cites Austen as one of his main influences and whose latest film, Love & Friendship, is an adaptation of a little-known Austen novel—is preoccupied, like Austen, with the positive relationship between conventional social rules and moral insight.


In Metropolitan, Stillman’s debut film about the debutante scene in a Manhattan of “not so long ago,” the conventional protagonist, Audrey, resists a suggested party game that obliges designated players to answer potentially embarrassing and personal questions with absolute candor. “There are good reasons people don’t go around telling people their most intimate thoughts,” she objects. “Games like this can be really dangerous.”


“I don’t see what’s ‘dangerous’ about it,” scoffs the hostess, Sally, for whom their social circle, the Sally Fowler Rat Pack (or SFRP), is named. (The group’s resident theoretician, Charlie, doesn’t like the term “yuppie,” and has dubbed their social class the “urban haute bourgeoisie,” or UHBs.)


Audrey’s reply is striking: “You don’t have to. Other people have. That’s how it became a convention—people saw the harm excessive candor could do. That’s why there are conventions, so people don’t have to go around repeating the same mistakes over and over again.”


Missing the point completely, Sally’s friend Cynthia replies, “You admit that it’s basically just a social convention then.” Not incidentally, Cynthia is the SFRP’s most promiscuous member and is even something of an exhibitionist (noted for deliberately reckless playing during strip poker).


Also not incidentally, Audrey is a Janeite, and one of two characters in Metropolitan that seem most reflective of Whitman himself—the other being Tom Townsend, an outsider who considers himself a socialist, though his views change over time.


When Tom dismissively remarks that nearly everything Austen wrote “is near ridiculous from today’s perspective,” Audrey shoots back: “Has it ever occurred to you that today, looked at from Jane Austen’s perspective, would look even worse?” It may or may not be the key to his work, but there is no more Stillmanesque line in any of his films.


Revealingly, in Barcelona, someone tries out a strikingly similar inversion in an opposite connection—but this is rejected. Commenting on the promiscuity of Spanish girls, Ted says, “The sexual revolution reached Spain much later than the U.S., but went far beyond it . . . here in Barcelona everything was swept aside. The world was turned upside down and stayed there.”


“Has it ever occurred to you,” Fred rejoins, “that maybe the world was upside down before, and now it’s right side up?”


But, after a beat, Ted answers, “No. I don’t think that’s it.” And the scene ends there, where in the other scene Audrey got the last word. Stillman often cuts immediately after a revealing punchline—one that is always revelatory of the character’s point of view, which is certainly not always Stillman’s own point of view, but often is, as it is in these two exchanges.


Audrey’s conviction that social conventions are often a better guide to behavior than personal perceptions is straight out of Sense and Sensibility. Specifically it is the “sense” of Elinor, contrasting somewhat with the “sensibility” of Marianne, who prefers to trust her instincts and feelings.


Of course both Elinor and Marianne were far more conventional than Stillman’s audience, and the pitfalls of the postmodern form of Marianne’s sensibility are far greater in Stillman’s view. In a moment of uncommonly clear self-knowledge, a character in The Last Days of Disco, discotheque worker Des, muses:


“You know that Shakespearean admonition, ‘To thine own self be true’? It’s premised on the idea that ‘thine own self’ is something pretty good, being true to which is commendable. But what if ‘thine own self’ is not so good? What if it’s pretty bad? Would it be better, in that case, not to be true to thine own self? See, that’s my situation.”


Stillman’s contrarian instincts begin with his choices of the social groups and phenomena he explores. The privileged classes of Metropolitan are usually movie villains, but Stillman humanizes them even as he skewers their foibles. Few musical forms have been as roundly reviled as disco, but Stillman offers an eloquent defense of disco culture, pitting it against the narcissism of the “Woodstock generation” and dismissing the iconic images of John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John as having nothing to do with real disco culture.


Stillman offers grace to these unpopular groups, but doesn’t overlook their faults. One of the characters in Disco, Alice, contracts both gonorrhea and herpes the first time she has sex. Nick in Metropolitan offers a blistering account of his parents’ generation’s pursuit of happiness above all (“the last way to be happy is to make it your objective in life”)—before concluding with self-critical candor that his own generation is “far worse. Our generation’s probably the worst since…the Protestant Reformation! Barbaric! But a barbarism even worse than the old-fashioned, straightforward kind. Now barbarism is cloaked with all sorts of self-righteousness and moral superiority.”


Stillman’s characters are relentless theory-makers, in part because they are all creatures of their various social bubbles, long on ideas but short on breadth of experience, and unable to see the limits of their own worlds. With his unlikely portraits of these worlds, Stillman gently invites us to contemplate the unguessed limits of our own cultural bubbles.


Although secularity is the default for most of Stillman’s characters, religion slips in around the edges. Early in the first scene of Metropolitan, Charlie makes an idiosyncratic anthropological argument for God—then promptly admits that his religious ideas are purely theoretical, not personal or experiential.


“A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and “Amazing Grace” are used in the soundtracks of Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco respectively, and a character utters the words of an Episcopal hymn, “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.”


In Barcelona Ted reads the Old Testament (which he self-consciously hides in a copy of The Economist magazine) in private while dancing to Glenn Miller. Stillman’s religious sensibility is Protestant and Episcopalian, but it’s broad enough for Ted, praying for his cousin’s recovery after a serious injury, to ask a Spanish girl whether she knows any Catholic prayers to say.


Note on age appropriateness: Stillman’s films are mature viewing. 

Film & Television
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