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Stillman’s Vision

The ‘WASP Woody Allen’ in search of moral truth.

May 21, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 34 • By IAN MARCUS CORBIN
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But I digress. And even if the preceding observations are accurate, they are somewhat out of place in an essay about Whit Stillman, because no one should mistake him for either a social realist or a moral crusader. At least not in any conventional sense. For reasons that only he could explain (and perhaps he couldn’t), Stillman has chosen to spend his artistic career writing dialogue for the young and searching. Authority figures are all but absent from his movies. Preachiness, and there is plenty of it, always comes leavened with a pinch of irony. Edification, when it does come, is stumbled upon by way of incessant questioning, foolish mistakes, or aesthetic transport—often some combination of the three.

Tom Townsend, the protagonist of Metropolitan, is a quintessential Stillman character. He is a serious, introspective Princeton undergrad affecting moral certainty, but deep down he is confused and dazzled by the wide world of young adulthood. He comes from a respectable old family but fancies himself a committed leftist, opposed to all manner of elitist, genteel traditions. 

Almost against his wishes, he is swept up in the satiny, glittery rustle of the New York debutante season. On the first night of the season, he tells fellow ballgoers that he opposes such events on political grounds because, he explains, “I favor the socialist model developed by the 19th-century French social critic Charles Fourier.” Like so much of Stillman’s dialogue, the line is delivered in perfect innocent deadpan while Stillman winks impishly at his audience. But it turns out that all that champagne and dancing is serious business: Over the course of Metropolitan, Tom comes to understand and embrace the humanizing power of decorous, chivalric debutante society, finally becoming its quixotic defender. 

Two decades earlier, with a few minor modifications, that was Whit Stillman. Halfway through a saturnine freshman year at Harvard, Stillman returned home to Washington and reluctantly attended his first debutante ball with a Students for a Democratic Society button pinned beneath his tuxedo lapel. As it happened, the dreamlike glamour of the deb season saved him from his own despair. By graduation he had traded his fashionable campus radicalism for unfashionable piquant nostalgia.

The Last Days of Disco, Stillman’s most recent film until Damsels, follows a group of recent college graduates in New York whose social triumphs and tortures center around an enchanting disco club, loosely modeled after Studio 54. The movie ends with the closing of the club, the professional defeat of most of the main characters, and a somewhat ironic soliloquy from one of them, arguing that disco may be dead but its spirit will live on in the hearts of those who loved it.

A somber mood reigns until, in the very final scene, a crowded New York subway car erupts into spontaneous dance (to the tune of “Love Train” by the O’Jays), which then fades into a faltering a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace” as the credits roll. The old hymn is sung by Kate Beckinsale, whose character in the movie, Charlotte, is arguably the most despicable. Stillman here is hinting at a comprehensive, underlying moral structure—an almost sacramental connection between communal aesthetic rapture and higher redemption. The deep goodness that Stillman’s characters seek in their moralizing soliloquies is found, in part, by abandoning oneself to the beautiful. It is a moral schema with a rich pedigree, developed (though somewhat differently) in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited

With Damsels in Distress, Stillman has pushed the last scene of Disco even further, and in a different direction. Damsels concerns a group of beautiful young women led by Violet (Greta Gerwig) who take it as their mission to civilize the barbaric masculine hordes of their elite East Coast school, Seven Oaks College. They also operate a volunteer suicide prevention center. Their saving and civilizing missions are pursued by goofily aesthetic means: tap dancing lessons, perfume, good-smelling soap, and, of course, an impeccable fashion sense that evokes a sort of pastel-heavy postwar prep, slightly updated. 

The girls mean it and, one suspects, at least in part, that Stillman means it, too. What Violet and her friends lack in self-awareness they make up for in perfectly enunciated term-paper disquisitions on how one ought to comport oneself. But for all their quixotic seriousness, the grand finale is boisterous and hilarious. It makes the “Love Train” scene seem like a tea party (the nonpolitical kind), and the viewer leaves the theater in a state of joyous disorientation. There is no “Amazing Grace” to tie the threads into a grand philosophical or theological proposition.  

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