The Julian Calendar: flirting with the enemy
By Julian O’Dea
“Right wing” film directors are not uncommon but true social conservatives are rare. Whit Stillman stands out as director who has an almost uniquely quirky and intelligently conservative approach to the moral problems of his characters. Moreover, he reaches some conclusions that are surprisingly sympathetic to Catholic thought. This is doubly surprising given his background as a scion of the American Establishment; his godfather having actually invented the term WASP for “white Anglo-Saxon Protestant”. He has sometimes been described as making films like a WASP Woody Allen: witty, talky films.
His signature film would have to be his first, “Metropolitan” (1990). Set among a young upper class group of friends in the old-money Upper East Side of Manhattan, it seems at first to be simply a comedy of manners, illuminated by Stillman’s wit. But it is not all light and frothy entertainment, as it ultimately delves into some disturbing topics. Stillman knows that below the froth of the mannered banter; the young men posturing intellectually, and the young women in their poufy frou-frou dresses; there are some deeper currents.
Pretty ingenue, Audrey Rouget, played by Carolyn Farina, is one of the central figures in the drama. She has fallen in love with Tom Townsend (Ed Clements), largely through reading his letters to another girl. Throughout the film, she reads the kind of fiction that a bookish young woman might try to use as a guide to the realities of life, chiefly Jane Austen, and there is a suggestion that she is not quite the ingenue she seems but is engineering a lot of the action. Be that as it may, the story is about whether she will be “ruined” by the demonic Rick von Slonecker or whether her first lover and perhaps husband will be the decent, if slightly too earnest, Tom. There is reason to think that Rick von Slonecker is sociopathic enough to have driven another girl to suicide by the way he and his friends treated her sexually (a threesome). In the event, Audrey’s virtue is saved. The last scenes show Audrey nestling happily under the guiding wing of her Tom, although one has one’s doubts whether it will last, being too contrived altogether. And, indeed, in Stillman’s third film, “The Last Days of Disco” (1998), we learn from a brief cameo that “Audrey” has made a career in publishing and Tom is nowhere to be seen.
Stillman flirts with the old enemy of Catharism, Catholicism, which he evidently eyes with a wary respect.
While wrestling with his themes, Stillman seems to be working from a Catholic script. His valourising of Audrey’s virginity recalls the traditional value placed on virginity by the Church. And he does not, like so many writers of comedy, and indeed many American Protestants, neglect the reality of Original Sin and its ongoing ill effects. Women do not get a pass. One of his spokesman characters asserts that, whatever they say, women find arrogant and sociopathic ladykillers of the ilk of the infamous Rick von Slonecker very attractive. And this seems to be true, at least in the movie.
Despite his Catholic instincts, Stillman is happy to have the same spokesman character remark that his generation is “the worst since the Protestant Reformation”, which presumably implies that before the Reformation people were generally benighted.
The second film in Stillman’s directorial output was “Barcelona” (1994). Stillman himself had spent time in Spain and acquired a Spanish wife, so he had had to come to grips with a Catholic culture very unlike his own presumably Protestant upbringing. I assume he is an Episcopalian. In “Metropolitan”, he has Audrey attend a traditional “Midnight Mass” in the upper class milieu of St Thomas’ Episcopalian Church, Manhattan. Stillman was lucky to be able to get footage of such a cultural and religious artefact. Today, after the recent rapid changes in the American Episcopalian Church, such a service might well be led by a Lesbian bishop. In any case, by the time he had moved personally and artistically to the locale of “Barcelona”, he had had to grapple seriously with the Old Religion. He was able to poke gentle fun at his own Protestant heritage, and make an uneasy adjustment to the (largely only cultural) Catholicism of the young women characters in “Barcelona”, whom he pairs off with his male protagonists.
The third film he made was the surprising flop “The Last Days of Disco” (1998), which had no religious themes to speak of, but rather dealt with the end of a dance craze, the travails of young urban professionals, and mixed in a crime story involving drugs at a dance club and some insights into the publishing business in New York. Stillman writes from his own experience and he had experience in publishing, and disco dancing.
Damsels in Distress
The fourth film was the recent “Damsels in Distress” (2011), which restored his fortunes. Stillman touches on some classic themes here: fertility and religion. Catholicism, Catharism and the biblical command to go forth and multiply are all in the mix. As in “Metropolitan”, but more explicitly, the delicate question of how exactly the next generation is to be engendered is dwelt on. It can be no accident that his Lily character experiments with “Cathar” (anal) sex at the instigation of her boyfriend, as the apotheosis of sterile sex, after her friend Violet (Greta Gerwig) has earlier stressed the importance of procreation. The movie clearly points the moral that the path of sterility is to be avoided (and it is possible to see a fairly explicit condemnation of homosexuality in the story, especially as Lily has it shoved in her face that homosexuals do the same thing, although her boyfriend claims some illusory difference.) In the event, her French “Cathar” boyfriend swears off Catharism himself.
As in previous films, Stillman flirts with the old enemy of Catharism, Catholicism, which he evidently eyes with a wary respect. One of the girls remarks that “the Catholics were always wrong”, but in the event she comes to square her actions with Catholic dogma. As so often, people follow a Catholic ethos in the absence of adopting the Faith itself.
The four girls who make up the “damsels” are all named for flowers. As well as Lily and Violet, there are Heather and Rose. Is Stillman hinting at the importance of their pristine fertility?
Although not a Catholic, Stillman reaches Catholic conclusions: that virginity is to be valued; that pairing and procreation are good, desirable and important; that sterile sex is to be avoided; and that it is possible for a class of men to become too refined and ineffectual in the pursuit of “good form”. In Whit Stillman’s world, ideas and moral decisions have consequences. Perhaps he is reflecting on the sterility and increasing decline of his own WASP class, which has been described as the only human group to consciously facilitate its own extinction. In any case, in his world, ideas matter. This gives his films their surprising weight.
Sometimes filmmakers send a conservative message without intending to. And filmgoers have a habit of appropriating things they like the sound of and giving them a conservative spin. But in the case of Whit Stillman, we have a director who really means it. Or so he says. He has been quoted as saying that his movies are meant to be “helpful guides to young women”. By not shying away from the ugly side of human nature – male and female – he may have achieved that.