Stillman after all these years

When I was growing up movie-mad in the late 1990s, a period that produced an unusually high concentration of distinguished films, there seemed to be no director warmer, savvier, wiser, more capable of being tickling and touching and eye-opening at the same time than Whit Stillman. In Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994), and The Last Days of Disco (1998), he emerged as something like the Quentin Tarantino of social portraiture, a true original who evoked a miscellaneous yet coherent lineage (Austen, Balzac, Wilde, Waugh, Fitzgerald, Salinger), just as Tarantino’s work isolated and emphasised the collagist impulse common to Godard, Leone, Bogdanovich, Scorsese and De Palma.

It is Whit Stillman Month, or perhaps Whit Stillman Fortnight, in New York City. Barcelona was shown at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. The Last Days of Disco was shown at the BAMcinématek in Brooklyn. And Stillman’s delightfully fresh new film, Damsels in Distress, has just opened in Manhattan to enthusiastic reviews, many expressing gratitude for the end of what he calls “my wasteland years” (14 in all).

I met Stillman, now 60, at a café in Manhattan, where he was understandably keener to talk about the projects he has completed than the ones he hasn’t. The setbacks have been numerous, and mostly of the standard financial-logistical sort. There has been no shortage of producer interest in his work, and no shortage of bad luck to go with it – most notably, a script delivered on September 12 2001.

Anyway, all that is now just prologue to the arrival of Damsels in Distress, which is set at Seven Oaks College, an elite university. The film starts, as Metropolitan does, with an innocent becoming entangled with an existing tribe. Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her sidekicks loiter at enrolment, on the search for recruits: “Look”; “Where?”; “There”; “I think so”. Their mark turns out to be Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a transfer student who becomes a fellow conspirator in Violet’s campaign of combating Seven Oaks’s atmosphere of “male barbarism”, by enforcing better hygiene and preventing suicide through the use of tap-dancing.

Lily represents an outsider perspective but she doesn’t serve the usual outsider role of clarifying established customs for the audience. Nobody uses modern technology but written communication is described as rare. One of the film’s “doufi” (the preferred spelling for the plural of “doufus”) doesn’t know the colour of his own eyes, another doesn’t know the colours at all. This is all played absolutely straight, which only makes it sillier; Greta Gerwig, born to star in a Whit Stillman film, leads a cast of amazingly agile comic performers.

The film, though more ramshackle, has plenty in common with Stillman’s previous work. Dialogue functions as a vehicle for surrealism of a mild kind, with tautology, non-sequitur and paradox greasing the wheels. Violet’s preference for men who are “not good-looking and yet not smart” recalls an exchange in Barcelona, while her defence of hackneyed phrases as a treasure-trove of human wisdom is borrowed from Stillman’s novel of The Last Days of Disco (published two years after the film’s release – not a strategy he recommends).

Stillman talked at speed, and almost always with love. “I adore Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise. Salinger’s Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters is one of the greatest things ever.” His frame of reference goes from Robert L Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers (a primer on economic thought) to the novels of Louis Auchincloss (a character in Metropolitan is shown reading The Rector of Justin) to Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of Keats (“I’m so ignorant – you guys pronounce it ‘Keets’, right?”). Disparagement was rare, and offered grudgingly. He proposed a Bad Script Bonfire but refrained from naming names.

Stillman prizes most in other people’s work what he excels at in his own. He loves “the first five or 10 minutes” of true crime documentaries, “when they do the scene-setting”. He emphasises the elements of “social reality” in Hitchcock’s films, so often associated with enclosed or paranoid worlds. Stillman’s own films are as much concerned with sociology as examples of it. His characters, most of them part of what one calls “the whole Manhattan thing”, reflect on French belief systems (Fourierism, Catharism), on “downward mobility”, on “the decline of decadence”. Charlie in Metropolitan coins the term UHB (urban haute bourgeoisie) to describe the class he belongs to. “Is our language so impoverished that we have to use acronyms of French phrases to make ourselves understood?” another character asks. “Yes,” he replies.

The Stillman sensibility, with its mixture of irony and sincerity, affection and mocking, celebration and mourning, is especially prevalent at the moment, the release of Damsels in Distress coinciding with the growing success of his followers. Wes Anderson’s new film Moonrise Kingdom will open the Cannes Film Festival in May. “I haven’t really spoken to him, so I can’t say for sure,” Stillman says, “but his name is Wes – which is presumably a contraction of Wesley. So I like to think of us as members of the tiny school of Methodist film-makers.” The BAM screening of The Last Days of Disco was programmed by Lena Dunham, the writer-director of Tiny Furniture and the forthcoming HBO series Girls. “I’m a longtime Whit fan,” she tells me. “His language is Shakespearean in its specificity and cadences. In my mind, he is to Uptowners what Philip Roth is to New Jersey Jews – plus dance!”

‘Damsels in Distress’ is released in the UK on April 27

Peter Aspden is away

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