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Föreningen Film i Malmö presents
Whit Stillman Double Feature:
“Metropolitan is an unashamedly literary film. Tom is unmistakably an offspring of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s sincere young heroes, although the world he enters is more closely knit and fundamentally provincial than Fitzgerald’s haut monde. It is, in fact, a fishbowl out of Jane Austen. (None of these allusions are exactly concealed by the director, who also wrote the script.) Austen is virtually a character in the story, but Stillman manages to avoid its seeming coy when, for example, Tom and Audrey argue about the “immorality” of the young players in Mansfield Park (Tom, characteristically, has not read the book, but relies on Lionel Trilling’s account, since critics spare readers needless toil by supplying the writer’s views as well as their own). The dialogue is ostentatiously written; every character wields subordinate clauses and uses words like however and nevertheless. The combination of stilted speeches and deft behavioral acting sometimes seems peculiar, but it is also peculiarly apposite. Like Austen, Stillman wears his irony lightly and deploys it affectionately.
The look of Metropolitan derives from a very different tradition, in part because the movie was made on a tiny budget that restricted locations and virtually precluded camera movement. Stillman and his resourceful cinematographer, John Thomas, worked out a series of graceful compromises, between stasis and airiness, formal composition and liquid spontaneity. The result is a look, surprisingly apt, that is most reminiscent of the early films of Eric Rohmer; and the disarmingly daffy end sequence has a low-budget, to-hell-with-it rambunctiousness that evokes Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders. This may seem odd at first—a picture about the rites of passage of the “urban haute bourgeoisie” might be expected to appear as impeccably composed as The Earrings of Madame de…—but shoestring improvisation provides the metaphor for the film’s subtheme.
Urban haute bourgeoisie, or UHB (pronounced uhb), is a term coined by Charlie, who is obsessed with the ongoing failure and imminent doom of his class. Stillman obviously thinks something of the sort himself—the movie’s title is subtle in its archly irrelevant grandeur, but you wonder if Twilight of the Gods didn’t cross his mind. (At one point, Tom’s bedside book is shown to be Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West.) Fifteen years on, the picture looks positively prophetic in its choice of villain. The smirking, ponytailed Sloneker may possess a bona fide title, but he is the future of the moneyed class: trashy, smug, narcissistic, abusive, enthroned in his Hamptons beach house. The members of the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, by contrast, are preserved in amber, however temporarily—they are serious young people, most of them apparently virgins.
Charlie, pining hopelessly for an era of civic responsibility and disinterested paternalism, represents an idea of conservatism that has now disappeared altogether; he is the most obvious dinosaur. Tom, who claims to be a socialist, turns out to have more in common with Charlie than not. Audrey, who is guided through life by literary classics, has no more of a sense of class entitlement than Tom does. Nick, just as game to fight a duel as to participate in a déclassé, nationally televised ball featuring debs from the hinterlands and their military escorts, is a romantic fatalist who would be at home everywhere and nowhere. Sally is fully endowed with poise and decorativeness, but she wants to be a pop star. Jane, who will probably be the first to get married, may also be the first to go on television. Cynthia has such a deeply rooted sense of privilege that she seems fated to end up in a Page Six scandal. Each of them is attempting to juggle two sets of values. At one point near the end, Tom and Fred are in a bar with Charlie, who has just finally delivered the eschatological sermon on class that has been building up in him. They spot a guy in his late thirties, and Charlie appeals to him for confirmation of his ideas. The graybeard doesn’t laugh or walk away but says, in effect, just get on with things. The point is clear, if unspectacular: realism and compromise are necessary if you want to stay alive.
This may sound dully practical, but the story’s unforced symmetry and the characters’ very credible complexities fill it out beautifully, and the movie’s plasticity makes it even seem adventurous. Form really does follow function in this film: its classicism is appropriate to the past of its imperiled class, while its ad-lib New Wave verve provides the equipment for facing the future. No less than any of the 1959 breakthrough works of the Cahiers du cinéma crowd, Metropolitan is a triumph of slap-up improvisation over limited resources, and it tells a tale that echoes that of its own construction: it is about making do. As such, it is as much a timeless story about the perils of growing up as it is an account of historically specific change and imbalance. The movie certainly does not concern itself with political questions—the actual money and power that lie behind the cultural anxiety and ritualistic tinsel of the upper bourgeoisie go unmentioned—but it is, after all, a movie about kids. It has remained remarkably fresh, and the elegantly choreographed tension of its many sets of oppositions suggests that it will appear no less fresh when its cultural specifics require footnotes. It is, like any product of good breeding should be, both well rooted and well aired”
(“Metropolitan: After The Ball”, essay by Luc Sante for The Criterion Collection edition of the film)
18:30 DAMSELS IN DISTRESS
“Violet Wister, the would-be campus reformer played by Greta Gerwig in Whit Stillman’s weird, wacky and mostly wonderful college comedy Damsels in Distress arguably doesn’t make much of a heroine. She’s a veritable font of wisdom, which would be great except that nearly all of it is either factually wrong or extremely dubious. She heads a clique of undergraduate girls who seem alternately cruel and clueless. Her vaunted fashion sense mostly results in a fussy, awkward, ladylike demeanor that’s something like a fifth-grader playing dress-up. But Violet has principles and lives by them, and for Stillman — the chronicler of the Northeastern WASP elite’s youthful eccentricities, who hasn’t released a film since The Last Days of Disco in 1998 — that matters more than anything else.
It’s both a relief and a delight to discover that Stillman — an Oscar nominee for his first script, Metropolitan, way back in 1991 — remains one of the funniest writers in captivity. Why hasn’t he made a movie in so long? Well, it’s a long story, but as in most such cases it seems to boil down to not enough money and too much stupidity. (Lena Dunham, the star and director of Tiny Furniture and creator of the new cable series Girls, apparently played an instrumental role in helping Stillman finally push this one through.) As the downfall-of-homosexuality scene demonstrates, Stillman is sometimes simply too damn smart for his own good. You can’t always tell at whom he’s poking fun, or why, and it becomes unfortunately easy to typecast him as the WASP answer to Woody Allen and conclude that his movies are insufferably irritating documents of privilege. He himself is aware of that possibility the whole time, and bastes his entire worldview in a rueful, ironic-romantic glaze.
Maybe you could argue that this old-fashioned fable about the mating dance between young women and young men, crowded with seemingly retrograde stereotypes and staged inside an elite bubble, offers some wry sideways commentary on what has changed in gender relations (and what has not). But I wouldn’t oversell that angle. Damsels in Distress is deliberately and purposefully irrelevant; its irrelevance is its strength. It’s zany-in-quotation-marks and also flat-out zany. I laughed until I cried, and you may too (if you don’t find it pointless and teeth-grindingly irritating). Either way, Whit Stillman is back at last, bringing his peculiar brand of counterprogramming refreshment to our jaded age.
(Andrew O’Hehir for Salon)