Rich, Beautiful and Surprisingly Virtuous: A Whit Stillman Primer
Whit Stillman only has only four films to his name, and like most directors who can manage to craft a career out of a few highly personal, thematically coherent projects, he has a loud and devoted following. It’s been a full fourteen years since his last film, but Stillman remains a writer-director to be aware of, especially just before his highly anticipated fourth film, Damsels in Distress, hits theaters on April 6. For the uninitiated, Stillman is a chronicler of the group dynamics of the young, the white, and the privileged of the recent past. Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco fit into a trilogy-like structure with different characters populating each story. All were made in the 90s, and all examine different subsets upper class society kids in the 80s with a rosy nostalgia for the time.
It would be easy enough to dismiss the Stillman catalogue as little more than one big white whine, but there is more that can be gleaned from the films, especially when viewed through the lens of the current economic state. From the isolation of the social groups, the pervasive William F. Buckley conservatism, and the fascination with innocence, goodness, and sexual purity, to the formal dialogue and unending self-analysis, there is a lot of fascinating material in his first three films that warrant taking the time to watch, or re-watch.
Stillman’s first film, Metropolitan, follows a group of young Upper East Siders through a Christmas debutante season. Filmed in a month in 1989 on a budget of around $225,000, Metropolitan is extremely simple, with only a few sets and even fewer camera movements. Just like the Upper West Sider who gets taken hostage by a group of debs due to a misunderstanding and an overaggressive devotion to politeness, we’re thrown into a world of tuxes, gowns and endless living room after parties where the young men and women lounge and drink and talk. Oh, do they talk.
The movie is ultimately about Audrey Rouget, the innocent of the group, and Tom Townsend, the middle class outsider. Audrey’s jaded counterparts gossip and flirt and discuss Tom’s otherness, Chapin dances, letter writing, Veblen, titles, and escorts, while she thinks about her schoolgirl crush on Tom and Mansfield Park. All the exteriors reinforce their status: they shop at Henri Bendel, they dine at the 21 Club, they attend St. Patrick’s Cathedral. They obsess over the instability of class positions and invent more precise titles for themselves that capture the trueness of their situation more than Preppy and WASP (it’s Urban Haute Bourgeoisie or UHB). Their thoughts rarely stray from their own circumstances.
This is obviously not the world of the many. If the navel gazing sounds a little tiresome, sometimes it is. What do we care about the marginalia of whether or not Preppy accurately describes these kids or how someone on the other side of Central Park is considered A Poor? The simple fact is, we really don’t. But we stick with Metropolitan because it’s funny and absurd, thanks to the brilliant Chris Eigeman as Nick Smith. Nick is as insider-y as any of them and yet through his wit and irony and honesty, he becomes our comedic vessel to this world. He’s the Dowager Countess of the Upper East Side, and shows that Stillman is not afraid to let his characters make fun of themselves. Aside from Nick, most of the comedy exists because the characters don’t know how ridiculous they sound. From Audrey’s observation that being all dressed up in the city at night reminds her of War and Peace, to Tom’s insistence that reading good literary criticism is a fair substitute to actually reading a novel, we find humor in their uninformed naïveté. But Stillman is not being cruel — he loves his characters, both in spite of and because of their immaturity. This precise and formal dialogue has become Stillman’s trademark and appears in each of his films.
The fascinating takeaway from Metropolitan is that unlike the depictions of, say, Gossip Girl or Cruel Intentions, Stillman’s kids are devoted to propriety. Sure they drink and snark and sometimes have strip poker sessions, but they take virtuousness just a seriously as our friends in Downton Abbey. The main male characters believe that they are hyperaware of the vulnerability of the girls, and strive to protect them at every turn. It’s slightly creepy, and one of the many reasons conservatives seem to rally around Stillman as though his films are their personal artistic medium. It’s a strange overriding theme and ultimately inspires the dramatic climax, where Tom cabs to the Hamptons to save Audrey from corruption by the sexual deviant Rick Von Sloneker. When he arrives, Audrey’s sitting there with a book and ready to go. Sleazy Von Sloneker wants to kick her out anyway for being a prude. Audrey’s morality and innocence remain intact, and the movie concludes.
Four years after Metropolitan’s box office and critical success, Stillman released his first studio-financed film Barcelona, about a successful Chicago businessman living in abroad, Ted (Taylor Nichols, who coined UHB in Metropolitan), and his Naval officer cousin, Fred (Chris Eigeman), who comes for an extended stay.
Ted is obsessed with work and success. He believes in the theories of Carnegie and the morality of sales. He’s also religious, but disguises his bible with The Economist. He talks of the immorality of promiscuity and has resolved to abstain from sleeping with any girl till he meets the one he’d like to marry — or as he calls it “another horrible pre-marital situation.” Temptation is his enemy and he does everything he can to stay sober, both at work and in his relationships. Unfortunately for him, he’s surrounded by a seemingly endless supply of beautiful, modern Spanish girls who are all too willing to jump into bed with him and his cousin because open relationships aren’t that big of a deal to them.
The romances distract from the darkness of Barcelona, though. Set “near the end of the Cold War” there is a constant threat of violence and a looming anti-American hostility embedded in all of the conversations. This is exaggerated by the fact that one of the characters is part of the U.S. military. The pithy dialogue also serves to disguise the underlying paranoia and defensiveness of our leads. Barcelona isn’t really a critique of militarism or capitalism, but our two leads certainly take themselves and their beliefs seriously, and in that way Barcelona becomes a more nuanced gaze into the world of the corporate youth of the 80s than say the over-the-topness of American Psycho or Wall Street.
The Last Days of Disco
The Last Days of Disco was released four years after Barcelona, Stillman’s budget ballooned to $8 million, but disappointed at the box office, bringing in a meager $2.9 million, which could explain why there’s been such an extended lag between his third and fourth film. It’s by far the funniest of the three, probably because our main characters are more broadly painted to encompass the different professional types you might encounter in real life. Less maudlin than Barcelona and less romantic than Metropolitan, it’s fueled by the freedom and responsibility of being young and working and socializing in the city.
The story follows Alice (Kate Beckinsale) and Charlotte (Chloë Sevigny) two recent Hampshire grads as they navigate their assistant jobs at a publishing house and their social life at the club. These girls look different from the Metropolitan debs in that they’re suddenly on their own. But they still try to grasp on to the comforts of exclusivity through their own invented rules — shunning a co-worker who’s a Harvard grad because of his middle class background, or looking down on a prospect because of his career in advertising.
At first glance, it would seem that virtue has gone to the wayside — the social encounters all happen at an exclusive Disco, the kind where there’s always a line of hopefuls outside and where drugs, sex, and costumes are just part of the normal inside. But this is no Sex and the City romp through youth and Manhattan. It is once again about rules and virtue, which emerge to shame our female leads in the most sobering of ways. Encouraged early on to pursue a one-night stand, Alice spends the rest of the movie being humiliated by this decision. She ends up with herpes and a reputation as a slut. We find out eventually that she was actually a virgin. Stillman thinks that this is important for us to know. She got caught up in the expectations of her time and violated her own moral code, and herpes is her punishment. Once again, we’re presented with a strange presentation of the downsides of promiscuity that are more punishing to the women than to the men. Maybe it was just the time that we’re seeing, or maybe it’s a lesson to be learned.
Sexual politics aside, The Last Days of Disco is ultimately about a world in flux. There are frequent trips to the unemployment office (though our characters wear headbands and Lacoste shirts and sport coats), implying that perhaps even they’ve been cut off from parental assistance. Socially, the emerging Punk Rock scene and the derogatory use of “Yuppie” seem to threaten their livelihoods, security, and youth. Social rules and class indicators matter less than ever before, and there is wistfulness for the exclusivity of the deb parties and the club scene. By the end of the movie, we hear that the discos have started to hire people to stand outside to look as though they’re very popular. Ultimately the indicators that our leads defined themselves by — colleges, prep schools, country clubs, vacation spots, etc. — mean little in their adult life. This was hinted at in a revealing conversation in Metropolitan, where a company man in his late 30s reveals to the kids that they’re going to have to accept that they’re not doomed to failure. When the white gloves come off and the velvet rope is removed, what happens then? Stillman threatens his characters with these questions but ultimately doesn’t give us much of an answer because it’s probably just life and work and routine. Even Audrey Rouget ends up as a working girl (we know this through a cameo in The Last Days of Disco).
For the few that might identify with the characters in any of these films, it might be easy to view the Stillman catalogue with nostalgia. But to accept that these are just love letters to some young white kids with lots of money and east coast pedigrees is to miss the larger point. Our soap operas tend to treat the wealthy as deviants, yet the morality we see here is usually reserved for middle class social climbers with prudish attitudes towards sex and a protestant work ethic. It’s a fascinating counter-narrative to the hi-jinks of the Gossip Girl kids and does make you wonder whether or not the obsession with purity and virtue is part of the joke for Stillman. The three movies have also become portraits of a different time and are illustrative of the consistent anxiety and paranoia present for those at the top. Ultimately, we don’t have to feel sad for our protagonists (what would the 99% think after all?), but we can enjoy the dialogue and wonder whether or not types like these really existed. And they’re still funny too.
Lindsey Bahr also believes that the surrealists were social climbers.