The Discreet Charm of Whit Stillman
Published on May 7th, 2012 | by Claire E. Peters2
“Damsels in Distress” opens on Friday, July 20 at Cinema Village.
A Q&A with director Whit Stillman will be held following the 7:10 PM showings on Friday, July 20 and Sunday, July 22.
Running time: 99 minutes. Rated PG-13.
A casual viewer of the work of Whit Stillman can intuit the deep and abiding love the director has for the characters in his films. His wordy moralizers and awkward goody-goodys seem ripe for parody, and might suffer greatly at the hands of a less loving creator. Although they do sometimes end up the victims of circumstance or the unkindness of other characters, Stillman ensures that his protagonists have a happy fate, swaddling them in a narrative that always concludes in their favor. In “Damsels in Distress,” Stillman’s reintroduction into the film world after a twelve-year absence, we meet Violet (née Emily Tweeter) a prim, tap-dancing, cliché-advocating college student. Violet could so easily have ended up a histrionic striver à la “Election”’s Tracy Flick, or a petty bully like “Mean Girls”’ Regina George, but Whit Stillman presents her to us as a soap-scrubbed Florence Nightingale. Stillman’s heroes are crusaders against barbarism and incivility, a scattered column of white knights defending their own honor and that of others. Violet defends the fraternity boys, whose housing is threatened based on the claim that their organization is “elitist,” by pointing out that no group of people whose members are so stupid could possibly be elitist. Instead of uprooted, she argues, they ought to be educated and habilitated. Violet sees these fellows not as privileged jocks, but as an overlooked category of the handicapped, in need of care. Violet’s peers are skeptical of her assessment, but the viewer can see that the men of Seven Oaks College’s Roman fraternity system aren’t your average frat boys. They are thick but relatively harmless, oafish but not thuggish, easily comforted by bean-filled toys, engrossed in costumed play-fighting, and blissfully unaware of their powerful body odor. Stillman gives even this pack of stinky Lennys the soft-focus treatment.
Stillman’s characters are self-possessed and serious, but never smug. In Stillman’s universe, what might otherwise be interpreted as an exhibition of outmoded conservatism or misguided charity is often portrayed as an admirable attempt at self-improvement. “Barcelona”’s Ted and “Damsels”’ Violet resolve to date only modestly attractive people after concluding that the most attractive people often exhibit the worst character traits. In the end, both characters end up paired with intelligent, articulate partners, who just happen to be gorgeous. Rather than taking these prigs down a peg (and of course I don’t mean “prig” in a pejorative way), Stillman rewards them for their unwavering fortitude in an environment in which their ways seem prudish and out of fashion. So, too, at the end of “The Last Days of Disco,” wherein Alice and Josh are united. Josh has lost his job as assistant DA, and Alice has been diagnosed with an STD, but instead of portraying them as damaged goods deserving of each other’s sympathy and the viewer’s, Stillman presents them as the story’s heroic victors. Alice has just been promoted, after all, and disco will live for at least as long as their ride on the 1 train.
Many of Stillman’s characters adhere to the traditional social codes of their upper class, but rather than punishing the self-made transgressors of that order, Stillman valorizes them. Comeuppance for fabulism is rare. In “Damsels in Distress,” no fewer than three of the main characters have fabricated their entire personas, including their names, their lineages, and their countries of origin. Rose transformed herself after a visit to London, Violet after experiencing a mental breakdown following the death of her parents, and Fred, for no discernible reason, other than a desire to be someone other than Charlie. Some critics have commented that Stillman’s films show the world as the director thinks it ought to be, rather than as it is. If this is true, Stillman’s characters are the embodiment of this notion. They become the living incarnation of their own ideals. As Stillman himself noted in an interview with The Guardian, “The only way to end up in the perfect future is to invent it yourself.” Many of his characters, each in his or her own way, strive to improve the world around them, and start by transforming their own lives, in ways either subtle (like Ted in “Barcelona”) or striking (like Violet, Rose, and Charlie in “Damsels”).
An understated iteration of religiosity surfaces in each of Stillman’s films. In “Metropolitan” we see Audrey silently weeping at a somber Christmas mass after being cast aside by Tom. In “Barcelona” we witness Ted’s Glenn Miller-based Protestantism. If the element of religion is mostly absent from “The Last Days of Disco” (save for the mention of Josh’s psychotic break during law school, which seemed to involve an exhibition of Pentecostal ecstasy), it is explicit in “Damsels in Distress.” At one point Violet declares, “We are all Christians, or Judeo-Christians” (this comment, it is alleged, elicited gasps at the Rotterdam Film Festival). Stillman’s characters embody a positive vision of religious morality, which rarely surfaces in current popular culture. Ted takes a clandestine approach to religious exploration, reading the Bible in secret, behind an issue of The Economist. Violet not only talks the talk, boldly proclaiming herself (and, naively, all others) to be Christian, she also walks the walk, with her generosity, her concern for her peers, her faith in herself and in the goodness of man. Even deviant sexuality is defensible as long as it has a strong foundation and a rich tradition, as demonstrated by “Damsels”’ Xavier and his adherence to the teachings of the Cathars, and in Ted’s cousin Fred’s discussion of sadomasochism in “Barcelona.”
Stillman offers viewers opportunities for edification through his characters’ dialogue, as they discuss a multitude of ideas and theories, works of art and literature, and historical events. While Wes Anderson’s films offer well-read hipster types numerous opportunities to pat themselves on the back for recognizing the highbrow indicators he throws up, Stillman gives us deeper cuts, new material to investigate and ponder. Many viewers will get a good chuckle out of the fact that Cate Blanchett’s character in “The Life Aquatic” is reading Proust to her fetus, but how many will seek out the book Audrey is reading (shot at such an angle that any audience member who is interested can see it) on Von Sloneker’s floor? We will recognize Chekhov on Margot Tenenbaum’s bookshelf in Anderson’s “The Royal Tenenbaums,” but if we want to know more about this “Fourier” of whom Tom Townsend speaks in “Metropolitan,” we will probably have to find out after the lights come up. Some viewers may find Stillman’s characters’ verbosity grating, but it offers an alternative to the simple sort of dialogue that serves only to move a plot forward, and to the self-satisfied name-dropping of current indies, the purpose of which seems, more than anything, to make the viewer feel good for understanding a reference to a lesser-known David Bowie album.
Stillman’s films are relatively easy to watch, but they are not trifles. His characters may appear privileged or sheltered, naive members of the class of the educated and wealthy (i.e., WASPs, yuppies, preppies, or UHBs). Their lives are not utterly charmed, however, and though they almost never engage in passionate emotional displays, the viewer is witness to episodes in which the characters must struggle mightily. Surely Alice is not as placid as her expression would indicate when the pharmacist hands her a prescription and says, flatly, “I’m sorry.” Surely Fred will experience difficulties as he goes through life blind in one eye after being shot in the head. In “Metropolitan” Tom and Nick experience turmoil over absent fathers and broken homes. But by choosing not to indulge in the twee, open-diorama aesthetics of Wes Anderson, or engage in the type of “literate East Coasters at their worst” roasts of Noah Baumbach, Stillman coaxes us into seeing the very best in his coterie of privileged and semi-privileged. They may exasperate us with their stilted vocabularies and school-marmish behaviors, but we don’t wish them ill. Stillman’s characters are challenged, but never humiliated, and the best of them are rewarded for their graceful navigation of adverse circumstances.
Only a few of Stillman’s characters incorporate Christianity into their moral codes, but each of his heroes and heroines shares in a conscious striving toward self-improvement, and an adherence to a humanist morality. This is perhaps the most distinctive quality of Stillman’s films, as well as their most admirable. Contemporary cinema so rarely offers us characters like his, who, rather than allowing themselves to be whipsawed by their own desires, whimsies, and caprices, make a concerted effort to do right by themselves and their fellow humans (while also avoiding becoming maudlin or preachy). Contemporary comedies frequently reduce women to baby-crazy manhunters, willing to push any sister under a bus to get the guy, and portray men as skirt-chasing himbos or pitiful manchildren. Stillman offers some relief to those among us experiencing the sort of moral fatigue that results from being constantly presented with our worst possible incarnations, in images 100 times our natural size.