In Whit Stillman’s debut Metropolitan (1990), Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) is asked by Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina) which Jane Austen novel is his favourite. In response, he confesses that he does not read novels, arguing that “You don't have to read a book to have an opinion”. Tom explains that he instead prefers to read “good literary criticism” as that way he gets “both the novelist’s idea as well as the critic’s thinking”. For those who have seen a Stillman film, this sentiment is probably not shared as, in the case with the cinema of Stillman, you do have to watch a Whit Stillman film to have an opinion about it.
Within the landscape of American independent cinema since the 1990s, Stillman has continued to entertain audiences with his unique brand of courteous comedy, which is inspired by classical literature, and features a breath of exclusive communities, from the young urban culture of New York to expats living in Barcelona and Paris.
Metropolitan set the stage for the “urban haute bourgeoise” of New York, whilst Barcelona (1994) – which Mike D’Angelo of the A.V. Club describes as “a collection of amusing anecdotes” – follows two American cousins (played by Taylor Nichols and Chris Eigeman) in the European city during “the last decade of the Cold War”, a period of intense anti-American sentiment.
The Last Days of Disco (1998), Stillman’s third film, and the conclusion to what is referred to as his “authorial triptych” by Claire Perkins*, spends time with its two female protagonists Alice (Chloë Sevingny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) during the closing era of New York’s famed nightclub scene, with references to Studio 54.
After a 13-year hiatus, Stillman returned to filmmaking with his fourth feature, a campus comedy called Damsels in Distress (2011) starring Mumblecore queen Greta Gerwig as Violet, in which she leads a trio of young women who, through their Suicide Prevention Centre, set out to combat the male-dominated microcosm that is the Seven Oaks College campus.
2014 saw the director step in to new territory as Stillman turned television creator for the first time, producing a pilot episode for Amazon’s online video streaming platform called The Cosmopolitans. The series adds to his previous, albeit brief venture into television, where he directed an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street (1996) and, with future episodes of The Cosmopolitans currently in development, suggests a possible future for Stillman in the medium.
Stillman's fifth feature film Love & Friendship was introduced at Sundance Film Festival to immediate acclaim; the film is inspired by muse Jane Austen’s unfinished novella Lady Susan, which Stillman has also novelised, adding a distinctly unique narration and a twist on Austen’s original work. As this introduction to Stillman’s oeuvre demonstrates, when chronologically navigating through the films, television series and novelisations of his screenplays, we get a real sense of not only the versatility of Stillman as a creator, but also an inclination of the themes, tone, humour, drama and portraits of select social groups that have come to characterise a Whit Stillman film.
Throughout his work to date, the auteur has managed to effortlessly capture shifting urban social classes, explore difficult political landscapes, and lament the ends of cultural movements in what are considered cult favourites with specific audiences, and Love & Friendship looks set to continue this trend.
*Perkins, Claire Remaking and the Film Trilogy: Whit Stillman’s Authorial Triptych. The Velvet Light Trap. 61 (Spring 2008). Pp. 14-25.