Why the World Still Needs Whit Stillman


Westerly Films

Rejoice, all members of the urban haute bourgeoisie: 58-year-old director Whit Stillman, modern master of the comedy of manners, has finally, after a dozen years of waiting, filmed his fourth movie.

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Stillman's first three films came in a burst, all in the '90s, and all tapping the same style and often the same cast of actors. Most notable was Chris Eigeman, who appeared in each and lent a most effective voice to the delivery of Stillman's deadpan, sardonic lines. Cinephiles called the original trio of pictures—Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco—the Yuppie Trilogy for reasons immediately obvious to his audience. Polished, nostalgic, vaguely conservative in the intellectual tradition, Stillman and his films pioneered a new aesthetic.

First came Metropolitan in 1990, a spare independent production looking at the romantic foibles of preppy Manhattanites (who dub themselves UHB—urban haute bourgeoisie); then perhaps his strongest film, 1994's Barcelona, a film set near the end of the Cold War in Spain, pairing two Americans against anti-American sentiment to hilarious effect; and finally 1998's The Last Days of Disco, an uneven portrayal of club-obsessed young women in publishing (Chloë Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale) but charmingly complex in its own right. Stillman seemed at the top of his game.

And then years crawled by. Rumors faded in and out: talk of a film set in 1960s Jamaica, of financing difficulties, a Christopher Buckley adaptation, and more. Nothing materialized. An entire decade passed without a Stillman movie.

The wait, we learn recently, has ended. Whit Stillman revealed in a November New York magazine interview that he has filmed his next movie: Damsels in Distress, starring Adam Brody and Greta Gerwig, a "collegiate comedy" already shot this past October and slated for a 2011 release. And although Stillman says Damsels in Distress will not be a repeat of his earlier films, there may be the entirely appropriate Chris Eigeman cameo.

Why should we care about Damsels? Precisely because Stillman has marked himself as one of the more original voices to emerge from American cinema. Stillman never accomplished mainstream success (the trilogy collectively grossed around $13 million), but a cult slowly grew around his films, which were quiet and strange, hilarious and utterly unconventional. Critics noticed as well—his debut earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and handsome Criterion editions celebrate the three initial releases. Stillman's style captured the imagination of fellow filmmakers like the now better known Noah Baumbach (Greenberg, The Squid and the Whale), whose first films Kicking and Screaming and Mr. Jealousy cribbed heavily from the Stillman playbook (not to mention lead Stillman actor Chris Eigeman in both).

What characterizes a Stillman film, exactly? Consider the dialogue a moment. From Metropolitan: "I don't read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists' ideas as well as the critics' thinking." Or this exchange from Barcelona: "You can't say Americans are not more violent than other people." "No." "All those people killed in shootings in America?" "Oh, shootings, yes. But that doesn't mean Americans are more violent than other people. We're just better shots!"

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John Hendel is a writer based in Washington, DC, and a former producer at The Atlantic.

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