The Cosmopolitans and the Case for Whit Stillman’s Conservatism

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The serial format suits the writer-director Whit Stillman, but in a typically archaic way. He’s not a “showrunner” in the current sense, sending character arcs sprawling across a pay-cable canvas. Rather, his films log anecdotes, wryly observe tribal codes, and feature people sitting around exchanging eloquent, half-serious generalizations about their own character, the character of others, and the relationships and attitudes that define the world they inhabit. Think of The Cosmopolitans, his currently streaming Amazon pilot, as the “Paris Diary” in some breezily erudite quarterly of the type that no longer exists.

Stillman’s characters are Americans (and others) in Paris, and the pilot mostly introduces them. The Cosmopolitans is set in a bubble, and is both problematic and valuable because of it.

In the 26-minute pilot episode, Stillman’s characters sit around in a café, and then attend a party. Friends Jimmy (Adam Brody) and Hal (Jordan Roundtree) seem to be staying in Paris indefinitely, long enough to know some people, if not to have put down roots or to be socially independent. They discuss the mopey Hal’s on-again, off-again relationship with a Parisienne divorcée, and meet Aubrey (Carrie MacLemore), a Southern belle at loose ends after her French writer boyfriend has called for a break. With their Italian friend Sandro (Adriano Giannini), they attend a party where Chloë Sevigny (with a severe streak of gray in her brushed back temples! Chloë Sevigny! With gray hair!) snarks on them from her more established post as a fashion journalist, and where louche host Fritz (Freddy Åsblom) sets various romantic wheels in motion, including with willowy Canadian Camille (Dree Hemingway).

In one interview I’ve read, Stillman averred that the pilot takes place on a Saturday, a day when people neither attend nor necessarily feel like discussing their work—but his response was rather prickly, and betrayed a certain impatience with the implied critique of his narrowly viewed, monied or at least money-adjacent milieu. You can take this, if you want, as another evidence of Stillman’s at this point rather willful, entitled, potentially socially poisonous refusal to acknowledge the existence of social classes other than his own; I prefer to think of the characters’ comfortable underemployment as a fantasy of expat drift—of a time, possibly nonexistent, when prices were low, and one could be both shabby and genteel. It’s also the case that Americans are obsessed with their jobs to a unique and unhealthy degree, and we need to get over that.

Some of the dialogue in The Cosmpolitans, it must be said, feels a bit tossed-off, as if it knows that the place-card credit font will inevitably frame everything as elegant, but it is at least equally often delightful. (“It doesn’t have to be decadent. You could go hiking.”) And Stillman tends to work with actors who have a wonderfully unself-conscious way around complete sentences. Adam Brody, who plays the most passive character here and in Damsels in Distress, and the one with the whimsically nostalgic worldview that seems closest to Stillman’s, is even beginning to look a little like Stillman’s 90s muse Chris Eigeman.

The drama is magnificently low-stakes. A whiff of romance is in the air—though Jimmy and Hal mostly bumble through their conversations with women, the days are sun-dappled, the nights are candlelit, the blazers and gowns are fresh from the cleaners, and the characters all know how to dance. There is the intimation that Fritz manipulates people for his own amusement, but would be a ridiculous figure if not for his family’s wealth, and runs through women in a way too fast as to be admirable; Sandro, in addition to being slightly older, glibber, and swarthier than his friends, invites a drug dealer to the party. (Fritz’s indiscreet promiscuity, and Sandro’s drug use, are somewhat more explicit than the hilariously delicate “ALA” of Damsels in Distress. The drug dealers are white and well-groomed, though at one point the characters do nearly get lost in a neighborhood inhabited by Paris’s nonwhite urban poor.)

Most of all, what’s important is “reputation,” a word which comes up slightly. People have heard of each other before they meet, and have strong opinions about who is and who is not reliable, and above all chivalrous. Stillman’s conservatism (largely discreet, mostly, since his American Spectator days) comes through in his rather archaic view of courtship. It’s always hard to tell where his characters end and he begins—his dialogue is generally polished to a charm that makes its seriousness a secondary concern—but there’s not much counterpoint, this time, to the way in which his male characters spend a lot of time talking waxing wistful about women, usually about women in general. In Metropolitan, when Tom Townsend and Charlie Black trek out to a summer colony to “rescue” Audrey Rouget from Rick von Slonecker, it was played for self-parody, but Jimmy and Hal’s tone here is the assured self-effacement of the born-romantic who is either too self-aware or abstract-minded to “get” the girl. (There is a moment when a Frenchman mishears Aubrey’s name and tells her she looks like Audrey Hepburn; MacLemore plays it well, her face warmed by the unexpected and necessary compliment, and Stillman directs it sympathetically, as if with infinite understanding of the wrong choices we’re always making for the right reasons, but it’s still a limited way of looking at things, especially after the rather more proactive female characters of his last two features.)

And yet the insular, delicate milieu (the characters here have mobile phones, but not Facebook), is also the source of The Cosmopolitans‘s charm—and also its genuine weight. A couple of years ago, on the occasion of Damsels in Distress—the middle of the Whit Stillman Comeback Express, after the Criterion of The Last Days of Disco and before this new chapter—I interviewed Greta Gerwig for the cover of The L, and she observed of Stillman’s worldview, that “there’s something that happens towards the end of the movie in his movies, people are often just sort of… forgiven.” What it is, I think, is that Stillman’s projects take place in very narrow social spheres: the town-and-country orbits of the New Yorkers in Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco, the small liberal arts campus of Damsels in Distress, and the expat communities of Barcelona and now The Cosmopolitans. The old social niceties apply—one moves in the same world as these people, so one must be polite—and this is the basis not just of nepotism and entrenched class stratification (as it is in the real world), but also, eventually, of moral growth. One is tolerant of another’s foibles, and vice-versa, even if one is also bitchy about them in private conversation; and, gradually, rivals see past petty animosities, or “reputations,” and become basically reconciled to each other. Though it’s early doors yet for its characters—Jimmy, Hal and Aubrey all end the pilot seemingly on the cusp of a bad love-life decision—The Cosmopolitans ends on a lovely note, with people who barely know each other riding home in a cab across a Seine lit by streetlamps, happy equally for the moment and for sharing in. The series, hopefully unfolding over the course of several more episodes, should give his characters ample room to talk, dance, find love—and, even more than that, friendship and fellowship.

Amazon’s “Pilot Season” allows Amazon Prime members to vote on which episodes are picked up for a full streaming run. You can view and rate them here.



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