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The ’90s auteur is back with Damsels in Distress, and he wants you in his club

Me and Whit Stillman down by the schoolyard
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  April 20, 2012

LOAFER With his '90s film about immensely likeable young moneyed types, Whit Stillman has been credited with ushering in the age of smart, mannered American independent comedies from fellow writer-directors Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach and Lena Dunham.

I attended a Catholic prep school in the early '90s filled with the scions of physicians and food czars. My classmates lived in gabled mansions and brick Tudors in the tonier western suburbs of Chicago, while I was a financial-aid case who lived three blocks outside city limits in a neighborhood dominated by bungalows and religious lawn statuary. "You must have low property taxes here," a friend's mother said once, driving me home from soccer practice.

>> REVIEW: Damsels in Distress <<

One night, tuning into our local public television affiliate, I came across a very cheap looking movie in which a group of young actors in fancy clothes sat around a living room talking in complete sentences. Within minutes, I felt an obliterating wave of confusion and fluttery longing. The film was Metropolitan, Whit Stillman's 1990 debut. I identified completely with Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), the earnest, pedantic naïf thrust by chance into a glittering world of debutante balls, bored socialites, and Manhattan penthouses.

Although the film is ostensibly a romance between Tom and the bookish romantic Audrey Rouget (I couldn't have guessed that actress Carolyn Farina was a working-class Italian girl like me), I saw it as a love story between Tom and Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman), the blithely snobby, devastatingly charming scamp who plucks Tom straight out of his drab little life for no good reason at all. I blame Metropolitan for making me think of my classmates as new-money vulgarians and for my lifelong affection for penny loafers.

In the 20 years since Metropolitan, Whit Stillman has made only three films — Barcelona (1994), The Last Days of Disco (1998), and, now, Damsels in Distress — with a 14-year gap in between the last two. All concern immensely likeable young moneyed types. Inevitably, an outsider has to acclimate to the mores of the in-crowd — in Barcelona, the outsiders are Americans, and the in-crowd is the entire country of Spain. Stillman's pedigree is not unlike that of his characters — he's a Harvard grad whose godfather, the sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, was credited with popularizing the term WASP. Recently, Stillman himself has been credited with ushering in the age of smart, mannered American independent comedies from fellow writer-directors Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, and Lena Dunham.

In February, Stillman visited the Harvard Film Archive for a retrospective. Although it was snowing on the day I was to meet him at the Inn at Harvard, I wore patent leather loafers with no socks. He appeared among the lobby's leather club chairs wearing a rumpled houndstooth blazer, button-down shirt, chinos, black loafers, and green socks. He carried with him a Dunkin' Donuts coffee cup, an accoutrement so strikingly out of place it seemed surreal.

"I'm not sure if I like it," he said, considering his coffee. "It's actually not very good. I thought in Boston you could get good Dunkin', but. . . ."

Dear reader, believe it: Whit Stillman talks just like a Whit Stillman character. His speaking voice is on the quiet side, his tone hovering somewhere between sweet and arch. He enunciates beautifully, and he deadpans everything.

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