Bourgeois in Love: Essays on the Films of Whit Stillman
Edited by Mark C. Henrie.
Books, 2001. 176 pages.
Reviewed by Elsa A. Solender.
Comic genius Whit
Stillman has written and directed a scant three films, but what films
they are! Distinctive enough to qualify him for cult status and for
this adulatory volume, which has been produced by nine academicians and
editors who write clear, entertaining, informative prose entirely free
of academic jargon and critical cant.
debut film, Metropolitan, an
homage to Jane Austen, was nominated for an Academy Award in 1990. In Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998) he
continued his examination of the young people characterized
(ironically) in Metropolitan
as the “Urban Haute Bourgeois” or UHBs. These same types have been more
commonly labeled “Preppies” and “Yuppies” in America. They have also
been scorned as “WASPS” and the people who write about them have been
derided by some as Dead White European Males. Mark Henrie, editor of
the volume, observes in his fine introduction that people of this class
“were known in ‘better’ days simply as the gentlefolk.”
He might have
called them Jane Austen’s sorts of people.
in “Whit Stillman: Poet of Broken Branches,” wonders whether such a
class actually ever existed in America, except perhaps as “orphans of
the sexual and, at least partly, political revolutions of the 1960s.”
While no other
American filmmaker is quite like Whit Stillman, the playwright A. R.
Gurney (Love Letters) similarly focuses his satiric, yet sympathetic
eye on the American gentry, and the late cartoonist Charles Schulz had
a similar capacity to invest seemingly ordinary figures with archetypal
The book, like
Stillman, has an “ambiguously conservative” tilt, as Peter Augustine
Lawler, a professor of government, observes in “Nature, Grace and The Last Days of Disco.” Stillman
is also, Lawler tells us wistfully, Socratic and Christian.
essays, as well as four previously published reviews, should interest
Janeites given the filmmaker’s affinities to Austen as far as
“subject,” tone, and style are concerned. R. V. Young, a professor of
English, makes a persuasive case in “From Mansfield to Manhattan: The
Abandoned Generation of Metropolitan”
for the analogous relationships among characters in Mansfield Park and Metropolitan as they confront the
perils faced by “young adults abandoned to their own injudicious
devices” by absent parents.
a political scientist, recognizes in his essay, “In Defense of Virtue,”
that Metropolitan may
be distinguished from all other films in the popular “coming of age”
genre by the “earnest class-consciousness of its characters.” Within
that consciousness are included a tragi-comic exploration of the
meaning of success, a “very witty” defense of chastity, and some
bittersweet ruminations on “two particular aspects of practical wisdom:
respect for convention and initiative.”
While Mary P.
Nichols, a professor of history, makes some good points about “Whit
Stillman’s Comic Art,” her essay is marred by an overly restrictive
definition of satire:
“Satire arises when
an author places an outsider among those who take the fashions,
customs, and attitudes of their class for granted, allowing the
audience to see conventional society from the outsider’s perspective.”
satire may arise in this way. It does, for instance, in all the novels
of Alice Hoffman. But if we accept this as the sole formula by which
satire is achieved, we may be obliged (as Nichols is) to classify as
“outsiders” such characters as Elizabeth Bennet and her father. We may
argue forever about the definition of an outsider (everyone is outside
some circle). Mr. Bennet, the sole male in his family, might be labeled
an outsider in it, but, given his authority over all the others, this
seems farfetched. Elizabeth may temporarily be an outsider in the
Netherfield circle, but she is never less than “a gentleman’s
daughter,” as she forcefully asserts to Lady Catherine.
Much better to
broaden the definition of the satire by introducing the concept of the
narrator as satirist, thus enabling both Elizabeth and her father to
fit in comfortably as “insiders” in the circles to which they clearly
revelation by Lawler is that Stillman, the most literary of filmmakers,
passed up an offer to direct a film version of Sense and Sensibility as
“unchallenging.” He is, it should be observed, uncompromisingly
original and a rather courageous figure in this era of political
correctness (towards some, but not all) and the elevation of
multi-ethnicity (except for some specifically proscribed groups).
I wish the
editor had included a complete list of credits for the three movies
because it is annoying to have to flip back to the first mention of
each character to see which actor played him or her. I wish I could
read an essay in this book by an analyst of the cinematic qualities of
Stillman’s work as well as its social, literary, political, and moral
qualities. I would like to know more about the casting, particularly
because Chris Eigeman, a fine actor, appears in all three films and
Taylor Nichols, another distinctive presence, has prominent roles in
two. I wish a proofreader had caught the dangling “3” on page 74 that
(frustratingly) suggests an absent footnote.
however, the book made for happy reading and I highly recommend it.
Solender, an independent scholar and Past President of JASNA, spoke as
the 2003 JASNA North American Scholar on “Recreating Jane Austen’s
World on Film” at the Toronto AGM.
v.19, no. 1, Spring 2003, p. 17
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