Reflections On Two Films By Whit Stillman

In the passed two months I have recently watched two Whit Stillman films, Metropolitan and Barcelona.  These two films deal exclusively with characters ensconced in the privileged world of the bourgeoisie, who often create their own romantic conflicts via over intellectualized debates.  These debates are in themselves very humorous, but the richer humor comes from the parallel of the literary mechanisms discussed by the characters to the very same mechanisms at work within the framework of the films narrative.  So though the characters are well versed in literary culture and highly intelligent, they are not perceptive enough to view their lives with the same objectivity and intelligence.

That is the crux of Stillman’s cinema.  His films work as a cultural criticism along the same parameters as the criticism of Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, William Styron and all the modern writers of Provincetown.  Like those writers, Stillman is skeptical of the bourgeois social structure, yet is equally compassionate to the culture’s inhabitants.  In this respect, I may draw your attention to the first of two significant similarities between Stillman’s work and that of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, the team of Merchant Ivory began making film adaptations of the novels of E.M. Forster (A Room With A View and Maurice).  These films were highly analytical of the upper class, but also achieved, in a technical aspect, the same literary texture as the novels on which they were based.  Maurice is especially significant here, where both long fades and title cards are used to denote chapters.  This denotation is not jarring, but rather moves with a fluidity already established by Ivory’s use of long shots, and scenes of subtle camera movement, which prevent any interruption from being disruptive to the film.  In Metropolitan, Stillman employs this same tactic to break his film into chapters, though his film is not based on a novel.  However, Stillman’s use of this literary mechanism only makes the parallels between his character’s dialogue and the narrative that they inhabit more apparent, and forces the audience to consider the entire narrative fabrication in reflexive terms.

Stillman also posses an odd fascination with group oriented dancing (something Mailer paints a rather humorous portrait of in his anthology Advertisements for Myself).  The Chris Eigeman character in Metropolitan and Barcelona attempts to include all the people at a gathering in the cha-cha and limbo.  This need for group participation speaks to the uniformity of bourgeois culture and society.  However in both films, the character only accomplishes isolation, either for himself or another single member of the party.  In both instances, the character experiencing isolation is the one with whom our sympathies lie, for as an audience, the social mechanisms of the upper classes are entirely foreign outside the literary realm of an Edith Wharton or Jane Austen novel (both of whom are authors discussed at length by the characters in Stillman’s films).

All the above-mentioned filmic mechanisms and themes would in turn influence a generation of American filmmakers, most notably Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson.  Try thinking of a film by either director that does not make use of Stillman’s singular filmic accoutrements.

-Robert Curry

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