Less a trilogy than a triptych, Whit Stillman’s three films made during the 1990s share narratives of educated, introspective twentysomethings ceaselessly vying for consensus repute from their peers, often at the expense of their own well-being. Much like George Costanza, who says in a 1993 episode of Seinfeld that “everyone has to like me—I must be liked,” Stillman’s characters live and die by the tide of their own egos, which often sweeps them out to sea.
In Barcelona, the second film of the trio, Ted (Taylor Nichols) and Fred (Chris Eigeman), two Americans visiting Barcelona on business and military duty, respectively, attend a series of parties one night with their Spanish companions, Montserrat (Tushka Bergen) and Marta (Mira Sorvino). Overhearing anti-American rhetoric from Ramon (Pep Munné), who’s alleging tactical destruction of their own ships during wartime, Ted lashes out in frustration, calling Ramon’s claims “disgusting lies.” Ramon—cool and collected—allows Ted’s anger to fester, which subsequently sends Ted fleeing the altercation, with Fred, always a reliable, sarcastic commentator, offering: “You made a fool of yourself in front of twenty or thirty people. So what?” Equally notable is how Stillman ends the scene here, without further commentary or even a typical exit point, a trait that, if pinpointing an auteurist signature, explains nearly all of Stillman’s films, with characters constantly caught—and left—in medias res.
Of the two films set in Manhattan, Metropolitan makes use of this approach repeatedly, with the film falling in and out of conversations like an eavesdropping partygoer. Throughout his debut feature, Stillman latches on to a form of deadpan satire that’s neither ridiculing nor lauding of his characters, but one that looks at them with an ambivalent mixture of fondness and revulsion. No better moment exemplifies this ethos than a scene where Tom (Edward Clements) boasts to Audrey (Carolyn Farina) that he hasn’t actually read any of Jane Austen’s novels, despite the fact that he’s been discussing them with her at length. He prefers “good literary criticism,” so that he gets “both the novelist’s ideas and the critic’s thinking.”
Then, in one of the best cuts in all of Stillman’s films, the scene immediately dissolves following Tom’s admission, denying what would surely be Audrey’s perturbed reaction shot and emphasizing Tom’s hubris and delusion. Much has been made of Stillman’s perpetually self-absorbed characters and wordy dialogue, but such a singular focus risks missing the trapeze act inherent to each of these films, with Stillman’s sharply measured pacing and rhythms—more like poetry than theater—proving the most admirable of his considerable artistic abilities.
It’s no wonder that The Last Days of Disco takes Manhattan’s disco scene as its backdrop, a choice foreshadowed from a scene in Barcelona, where Ted and Montserrat dance for a brief moment, with Ted saying “we both loved the disco music of the late 1970s, despite what everyone else thought.” Ted’s phrasing suggests a self-imposed isolation from “everyone else,” which is turned upside down in The Last Days of Disco, where acceptance and inclusivity is each character’s top priority. As Josh (Matt Keeslar) says in the film’s prolonged opening sequence, a utopian moment of social interaction has arrived, but he never counted on the clubs being “so hard to get into.” Later, Alice (Chloë Sevigny) repeats the sentiment (“This club’s really hard to get into”) as a measure of comfort for Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), who’s lamenting his boss being refused entry.
Stillman masterfully repackages words and phrases for different purposes depending on who’s uttering them, a tactic that wholly informs Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), whose antagonistic prodding of Alice results in Alice rehearsing dubious seduction tactics after being taken home by Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), whose Scrooge McDuck comics she claims to be “very sexy.” When Tom calls bullshit on Alice’s behavior later on, one realizes Stillman’s calculated deferral of paying off a scenario; the revelation says something important about Charlotte (undermining shrew), Alice (vulnerable naïf), and Tom (presumptive tool). Nevertheless, Stillman’s characters don’t make their feelings or assessments so explicit, leaving the depths of these implications dangling rather than having a neat line of dialogue or two for emotive summation.
Similarly, worlds overlap and characters recur across films, but in an unassuming and almost winking fashion. When Audrey (from Metropolitan) and Ted (from Barcelona) turn up in the nightclub of The Last Days of Disco, it feels merely an extension of Stillman’s aesthetic approach to fragmentary glimpses of larger conversations, brief insights into a greater panoply. Character types, especially of the vituperative sort, consistently emerge to each film’s fore, so that in Barcelona, when Ramon’s criticism draws Ted’s ire, it’s reminiscent of Metropolitan, when deb-society goon Rick Von Sloneker’s (Will Kempe) mere presence prompts Nick’s (Eigeman) inveigh against his “character.”
Even funnier, when Fred (also Eigeman) remarks to Ted in Barcelona that “I’m the one who’s supposed to go berserk,” he may as well be talking about his character from the previous film. Perhaps he is. After all, Eigeman’s the only actor to appear in all three films and play a different character in each. Though, in typical Stillman fashion, each character is essentially same: caustic, defensive, and ironizing to a fault. Whether viewed as three films in one or one film in three, Stillman’s still peculiar and dense brand of intellectual cinema would be insufferable were lashings of bourgeois suffering not each film’s raison d’etre.
Barcelona has been given a 2K digital transfer, while Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco retain their high-definition transfers from Criterion’s previous, standalone Blu-rays. Accordingly, it’s unsurprising that Barcelona easily looks and sounds the best of the lot. From the beautiful opening wide shot of the titular city, to the crisp interiors of perfected dim lighting, Whit Stillman’s second film has been given a near-flawless facelift, rescuing it from Warner Bros.’s serviceable, but unremarkable 2002 DVD release. The other films, unfortunately, pale by comparison. The Last Days of Disco, especially, looks too soft as image sharpness lacks throughout; there are even some edging issues with faces and lights in several scenes. The sound, too, has been mixed so that the music track often dwarfs dialogue, especially during the busy opening sequence. I found myself leaning toward the screen to better hear conversations at times. Metropolitan has no comparable sound problems, as dialogue remains perfectly audible throughout, but the image could stand another once over, as depth of field and detail are sometimes lacking.
Comprehensive, both related to filmmaking procedure and critical reception. On the former front, Stillman provides a separate commentary track for all three films and is accompanied by differing cast members on each one, though the filmmaker does most of the heavy lifting. These are ho-hum listens, with nuggets of insight emerging at various points, but like most commentaries featuring talent, there’s no real need for a feature-length track, since too much is either silence or filler. Both Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco receive behind-the-scenes featurettes, while Metropolitan boasts several outtakes and footage of alternate casting. Also included are a number of deleted scenes and trailers for all three films. Several interviews with Stillman delight, including separate talks with Katie Couric, Dick Cavett, and Charlie Rose. On the critical front, Farran Smith Nehme’s video essay is the highlight, braving the difficult task of identifying common elements across Stillman’s work. Most convincingly, Nehme argues for Stillman’s optimism and endearing treatment of even the nastiest characters. There’s also a lovely booklet, with a trio of insightful essays about each film. If the overall quality of the supplements dips a bit at times, the quantity compensates.
Language is a weapon in the films of Whit Stillman, but so is the writer-director’s cunning use of framing and editing, which Criterion’s new Blu-ray box set displays with varying degrees of audio-visual success.