Art by Victoria Elliott
The Many Loves of a Southern Cinephile:
The Stillman Sorority
While I was sitting in Whit Stillman’s latest feature, Damsels in Distress, it had been a while since I’d seen one of his three other films, and I almost felt my flesh crawl at the prattlings of its heroine, Violet (Greta Gerwig). It took basically two-thirds of the movie before I realized that I completely loved her. Not because as a character she was uniquely compelling—it’s hard to be uniquely compelling once you become a type in Stillman’s army of old-fashioned snobs—but because, I realized, she was playing the part in a Stillman film normally reserved for the actors Chris Eigeman or Taylor Nichols.
Though he’s appeared variously in other films (notably some early work of Noah Baumbach) and television, Chris Eigeman is the readiest identifier of a Stillman movie. Beginning with his immortal turn as Nick Smith in 1990’s Metropolitan, a role he cosmically landed by answering an ad in Backstage magazine, Eigeman has been an integral part of each of Stillman’s films until recently, when he declined participation in Damsels. If you’re not familiar, Eigeman is a dark-haired, delicately handsome type who doesn’t have palpable sex appeal so much as he gives off an aura of slick intellectual command that is, in itself, profoundly attractive. Some critics suggest that Eigeman’s roles are autobiographically representative of Stillman, though, as far as I can tell, he and Taylor Nichols (who does appear in all of Stillman’s movies) serve jointly as the two sides of a yuppie ideal that remain in constant struggle. Nichols, with his shy stuttering delivery, typically plays the prim, indulgently old-fashioned type, reverent of moralism, success, and tradition. Eigeman’s roles range from the haughtily top hat-wearing high-class party boy to the smug college-dropout womanizer. In Metropolitan, it’s hard to tell at first whether or not he’s a villain. On some days, in fact, I still have trouble deciding.
While, for a superfan, it’s admittedly upsetting to lose one of the key figures of a director’s oeuvre, in Damsels it was rather fascinating to see Stillman’s success despite the personnel shift. And the result is a strongly feminine movie, even a complimentary one. Sure, it’s a little easy to place the damsels on a pedestal when all of the male characters are “playboy/operator-types,” have the mental faculties of a preschooler, or smell bad, but, in its essence, it’s a film that celebrates the developmental quirks and contradictions of women and their friendships. Gerwig fits seamlessly into the usual place as the stubborn evangelist of her niche universe, prideful and patently disagreeable to any influence that doesn’t mesh with her tightly focused worldview.
But is she the most memorable female character in a Stillman film? It’s extremely possible that Stillman’s female characters are superior in complexity and far more realistic than the male characters—Eigeman’s and Nichols’s roles seem like the obvious exceptions, but their constant monologuing mostly serves the purpose of blowing a whole generation’s worth of hot air. Against their ostentatious caricatures, Stillman’s female characters seem downright subdued. For a female viewer, Stillman’s tone of traditionalism and yuppie pride invites some anxiety as to whether or not his female characters might be portrayed as overly flawless, virtuous heroines. (Okay, so sometimes he verges on this a little.) But, surprisingly, most of the women are not so untouchable. Below I’ve listed the best female characters to be found in Whit Stillman’s body of work as we know it, in no particular order.
Audrey Rouget, from Metropolitan (1990), played by Carolyn Farina
We meet the young, blissfully naive debutante Audrey Rouget while she’s home from studying abroad in Provence during the Christmas/deb season of “not so long ago.” She’s a member of the S.F.R.P.—the Sally Fowler Rat Pack—a self-styled group of chummy Ivy Leaguers who all glom onto the glory of one pretty rich girl (Sally Fowler). The other girls in the group are a little coy, a little experienced, and spend most of their evenings sitting around in blowsy chiffon dresses practicing their cynicism. Audrey has doting, protective parents and a clear-eyed love for great literature, sincerity, and the French. When she falls for the roguish Tom Townsend, an errant ginger Princeton boy who calls himself a Socialist and doesn’t read novels, her serene subtlety and shyness are, at times, excruciating. Is she clueless, though? Not as much as she is inexperienced. And she’s painfully honest and has a mind full of observations that she’s not willing to dash in favor of some male attention (which is something, more or less, most women do at some point or another). In the classic Lionel Trilling conversation (referenced even by OA editor Marc Smirnoff once upon a time in an editorial), Audrey’s defense of Jane Austen reveals one of the few moments she both embodies Stillman’s old-fashioned ideals and her own passionate opinion to a man she absolutely adores.
So she’s a little precious. What’s so great about Audrey? Cleverly, Stillman gives us an update on her life. In the final film of his bourgeoisie trilogy, Last Days of Disco, she appears in the club one night, lithe and elegant and dressed smartly in pearls and a black suit. According to Kate Beckinsale’s character, Charlotte, Audrey Rouget is now “the youngest person to ever be made an editor at Farrar-Strauss,” a brilliant young thing, even intimidating, and known for her perspicacity.
Alice Kinnon, from The Last Days of Disco (1998), played by Chloë Sevigny
Recently, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s film forum, young Lena Dunham (remember her?) screened The Last Days of Disco as part of her series showcasing complex female relationships. (Stillman and Eigeman were on hand afterwards for a Q&A.) Until Damsels, it could easily be argued (and I would still argue) that Disco is most certainly Stillman’s “woman” film (most directors in the post–New Hollywood era attempt at least one)—it focuses on the tense relationship of two college acquaintances (now coworkers) that decide to room together. Alice Kinnon, played by Chloë Sevigny, is the more interior of the two, communicating almost entirely with a series of slow facial expressions (kind of a marvelous feat for an actress who seems to have only one). Her silence is often mistaken for judgement, when really she’s just not quick to comment—a rare trait in a Stillman heroine.
Alice is so wonderful, basically, because she gets absolutely shit on. It’s impossible not to have sympathy for her—Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) is a manipulative, hopelessly poisonous personality who Alice is sort of stuck with (and who, one imagines, she might pity). Every single man Alice has any romantic interaction with is, honestly, a dick. Her suitors are so self-absorbed they deign to establish any true understanding or connection with this discerning and nuanced woman. Even the men who revere her, through some painful idealization of her character, seem to do so only for conquest or self-serving reasons. Alice is a person seemingly surrounded by almost no allies, yet she rises in her field and keeps her head on her shoulders, despite no small humiliations. Facets of Alice’s character smack of Victorian tropes, but she’s actually a comfortably modern woman, a wholly sexually liberated and professionally ambitious person, capable of making a few embarrassing mistakes and equally capable of proceeding through them without too much of a mess.
Montserrat, from Barcelona (1994), played by Tushka Bergen
Of all the Stillman ladies, Montserrat feels the most like a Woody Allen love interest. Sure, it may have something to do with her relationship—she’s involved in a May-December romance with a radical journalist she’s been with since the age of sixteen. She finds her way into an ancillary relationship with Taylor Nichols’s buttoned-down Ted, who, against the tendencies of his high moralism, decides to remain with her despite her romantic connection to Ramon, her longtime lover. Montserrat is especially understated (the language barrier helps) and her role is more explicitly that of a foil to the hysterical yammerings of Ted and his cousin Fred (Chris Eigeman), whose relationship is the centerpiece of the plot. (If Disco is the “woman” movie, then Barcelona is undeniably Stillman’s “man” study.) She doesn’t nail any serious zingers, but she displays forthright command of her sexual agency. This is mostly due to the fact that she’s, well, European, but the representations of the murky sexuality of European women (and their equally murky relationships) is comically accurate. (If you don’t believe me, Stillman is married to a Spanish woman, so I imagine he’d know.)
Montserrat’s relationship with the very traditional figure of Ted is key—Ted, like Nichols’s previous incarnation, Charlie Black, from Metropolitan, is a hopeless idealist. For this reason, he’s basically as terrified of women as he is fixated on them. For all of the adherence to a principled, Protestant life as Stillman characters are wont, it seems one of the peskiest modern inventions for the Wasps to accept is the sexual revolution. After all, who is there to marry when there are no snowy white virgins left around? Plunging a Glen Miller–listening, neurotic Bible-reading milquetoast like Ted into a polyamorous and sexually vigorous culture is the perfect way to confront those prejudices.
Violet Wister, from Damsels in Distress (2012), played by Greta Gerwig
As mentioned above, the heroine of Stillman’s latest feature, Damsels in Distress, has the unenviable task of holding the prominence normally reserved for Eigeman or Nichols—or, in fact, both. More similarly to an Eigeman character, Violet’s unyielding snobbery is almost intolerable for the majority of the picture. Compared to the other leading lady, clumsily innocent Lily (Analeigh Tipton), Violet’s aggressive desire to reform the behavioral standards of her college peers seems almost villainous and self-serving. Violet wants a world of courtliness and delicacy. It doesn’t exist, so when she finds herself heartbroken by an oaf of a frat guy, her melodramatic bout of depression is the developmental device that renders her more sympathetic to the viewer. It’s a technique that Stillman’s used before, particularly with the gunshot wound Eigeman’s leech-like character sustains in Barcelona. No matter how irksome this prig of a woman, we’re reminded that she’s hopelessly human, and just as lost and stunted and self-deluded, really, as any college student. It’s this depiction of college life (as opposed to, say, the preppy life) that really defines Damsels as from a new, separate era of Stillman’s filmmaking. More so than his other films, it’s more saccharine, optimistic, and sentimental (even down to its hyper-gauzy production). There are no big fat commentaries on foreign policy, class, or fins de siècles. And, most interestingly, there are explanations for Violet’s behavior (revealed in anecdotal tidbits about her past) that add another sympathetic dimension to a Stillman type that isn’t even usually employed in an Eigeman or Nichols character, and it helps sketch a cartoonish snob like Violet in more tender, finer detail.
Charlotte Pingress, from The Last Days of Disco (1998), played by Kate Beckinsale
If there’s a true prototype for who would later become Violet Wister, it’s the snotty, hilarious, incorrigible antagonist, Charlotte. Kate Beckinsale’s character is the dramatic, overstated contrast to Alice Kinnon’s silent internal plight. Charlotte has all the best monologues and one-liners: “Before disco this country really was a dancing wasteland. You know the Woodstock generation of the 1960s, that were so full of themselves and conceited? None of those people could dance.”; she holds forth with the blunt, self-congratulatory candor normally reserved for an Eigeman character. She’s so unbearable, though, that even when her constant meddling in Alice’s romantic life turns out to be helpful, it’s impossible to let her have any credit.
With characters like Charlotte, it’s difficult to remember that, like Violet, she’s more or less suffering the side effects of her insular, niche universe. Charlotte is a woman from a presumably upper-crust family, who attended Hampshire College and is now working as an editorial assistant, along with Alice, at a small publishing house. She wants a dependable, wealthy husband and a good career, but she’s unaware of how to actually achieve these goals—so far, in life, she’s gone around with everything handed to her, and completely oblivious to this advantage. By the end of the film, when she and Alice are barely speaking, and she’s collecting unemployment checks with the rest of the folks left jobless in the afterglow of Stillman’s disco-based microcosm, Charlotte is still overconfident, eager, and utterly unchanged. In fact, it’s this unwavering obnoxiousness that draws her closer to, and parallel with—who else?—the slimy Eigeman character. The cringeworthy truth is that this world is more full of Charlottes than quiet Alices or strange Violets—and, unfortunately, the Charlottes are nearly always as successful as they assume they will be.