Whit Stillman and His Duffel-Bag-Size Life in Paris

PARIS — Whit Stillman would prefer that you not call him an expat, though it’s been 18 years since the filmmaker left Manhattan, propelled, in part, by what he calls the “impossible economics” of New York.

In so doing, he continued a storied tradition of financial exiles here, like F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Rolling Stones. “Forward-Deployed American” is his preferred term, borrowed from a boarding school acquaintance who was posted abroad for work and never returned.

Mr. Stillman, of course, is a man devoted to the precision of language and keenly attuned to the taxonomies of class, culture and nationality. Terminology matters, though labels are always ripe for lampooning.

Among the choicest Stillman labels was the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie of “Metropolitan,” or U.H.B., as one character put it, impishly sounding out the neologism.

That exquisite first film, out in 1990 and made for just $225,000, introduced what would be Stillman territory throughout three more movies: the moral questing of a group of preening and idealistic preppies on the verge of adulthood. With their fastidious scripts, loopy erudition and pitch-perfect sets (from the rumpled sofas of a Park Avenue living room in “Metropolitan” to the Greek Revival village that was the fictitious college of “Damsels in Distress,” out in 2012), a Stillman movie presented such a particular worldview — the inner lives of the over-educated — that he was quickly and inevitably dubbed the WASP Woody Allen.

For the last few years, Mr. Stillman, 64, has been forwardly deployed in the apartment of his girlfriend, Marianne Monnier, who works in finance, and the youngest two of her five children, who attend college here. They share a series of rooms on the top two floors of a 17th-century apartment building in the Marais district. (Mr. Stillman has two daughters, one in medical school in Florida, and one working as a lawyer in New York.)

Sparsely furnished with Ms. Monnier’s family antiques — like Mr. Stillman, Ms. Monnier can trace her patrician roots back for generations — the apartment is an austere and elegant setting that would not be out of place in one of Mr. Stillman’s films.

That hardly anything in this apartment belongs to Mr. Stillman is a matter of pride for him. Since he separated from his wife in 2002, his aim, largely successful, has been to reduce his possessions to those that would fit in a small rolling duffel bag. (His excesses, he said, are white and blue cotton boxers from Brooks Brothers.)

“I prefer ‘The Taste of Others,’ though I haven’t seen the movie, so I don’t know what that means,” Mr. Stillman said, a joking reference to a French film from 2000.

One Saturday afternoon in late May, he and the duffel bag were at home for 48 hours after having spent a month in the United States promoting his new film, “Love and Friendship,” a sly comedy (Oscar Wilde by way of Stella Gibbons) with a script that is a Stillmanesque and modern reimagining of a youthful, epistolary novel by Jane Austen.

The next day he would fly to Dublin and then London for the movie’s British opening. He hadn’t slept much, what with jet lag and a panicky phone call from his distribution company in the early hours of the morning.

Mr. Stillman was also traumatized, he said, by the fact that he hadn’t been able to choose the film’s stills, which meant that, to his eyes, the movie was being marketed like a women’s genre film. “Are period adaptations women’s films?” he asked. “Or are they for everyone? Just like Jane Austen is for everyone. I don’t think there’s anything cliché feminine about Jane Austen. And, anyway, her earliest champions were Sir Walter Scott and the Prince Regent.

“It probably isn’t important, though I really regret not being able to,” he said, still worrying over those stills. It was “my own fault for blowing through a deadline” for the movie’s companion novel, titled “Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon is Entirely Vindicated,” which meant he had to finish the book when he should have been choosing images. ( Mr. Stillman, never a speedy writer, adheres to the motto “first thought, worst thought.”)
Mr. Stillman broached the idea of the novel in a tweet, which was then seen by an assistant at Little, Brown and Company. Given Mr. Stillman’s reactionary reputation, not to mention his loquaciousness, it’s surprising how enthusiastic he is about that medium. “Tweets can hurt, but they also can help,” said Mr. Stillman, adding that he loves the challenge of expressing himself in 140 characters.

The book, a postmodern confection featuring a malevolent, unreliable and spectacularly dim narrator named Rufus — who is addicted to footnotes and dedicated to slandering “the spinster authoress,” as he calls Jane Austen — is very, very funny, and stands on its own merits.

In addition to the contents of Mr. Stillman’s scuffed duffel bag — bought for just 21 euros (about $24), he boasted — his scant possessions here include two independent film festival awards and a curious looking white vase festooned with gold circles. “Those circles are supposed to represent disco,” Mr. Stillman said.

The vase was a trophy given to him in 2014, when he won the Prix Fitzgerald, a literary award, for his first novel, “The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards,” a comic companion to his 1998 film “The Last Days of Disco.”

Kindly, self-deprecating and prone to extreme thrift, Mr. Stillman explained his light domestic footprint this way: “Sometimes people who are very fastidious about what they’re going to do in their work are not very fastidious in their private life. I’m like that. I love it when people do really nice things around me, but I don’t have time to do it for myself. It’s very hard for me to even buy a new pair of trousers.”

On that afternoon, he was wearing a white button-down shirt, dark blue corduroy pants worn smooth at the knees, and a pair of new Blundstone boots, swag from this year’s Sundance Film Festival. He was grateful for the largess, since he didn’t receive a directing fee for “Love and Friendship.”

As he explained it, he receives a fee only if a film is profitable. “No worries now,” he said. “Love and Friendship” made the top 10 in its category in the United States, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands over Memorial Day weekend, a first for him. With indie films, you get used to long periods without income, always hoping for pay dirt.

Mr. Stillman’s contribution to Ms. Monnier’s apartment was to suggest a
multiplicity of doors when she renovated, he said, so that every passageway and room can be closed off, like those on a boat. “It’s a new life, with doors,” said Ms. Monnier of her roommate. Mr. Stillman added: “My flair factor is that I go to a cafe every morning to write. So I’m never here.”

Ms. Monnier’s contribution to his films has been editing the French subtitles of “Love and Friendship,” an urgent role since an interpreter for “Damsels in Distress” rendered Adam Brody’s character’s name, Packenstacker, “as a really bad, kind of dirty joke instead of what is to American ears just a long and funny name,” Mr. Stillman said.

His French is very correct, except for his accent, which makes him sound like Zorro, Ms. Monnier said. (He learned Spanish in Mexico during a semester off from Harvard and so he speaks French with a Mexican accent.)
Ms. Monnier and Mr. Stillman met 14 years ago at a party in a Parisian suburb, an event memorialized in “The Cosmopolitans,” a pilot on Amazon in 2014 about a group of young American expats in Paris starring two Stillman regulars, Chloë Sevigny and Mr. Brody. (He’s trying to write six more scripts now, he said, but has no idea if the series will continue.)

“I was taken there by my friend George, and we were lost, and we were late,” Mr. Stillman said, recalling that evening. “Our driver was a ex-Mossad agent. George is one of those people who knows everyone. He’s a Serbian preppy, which is very much like an American preppy. Anyway, when we arrived, there was this sort of bouquet of French femininity sitting in chairs on a terrace. Space is made for us, and we sit down between the lovely young women.”
Ms. Monnier said: “I don’t remember the other women. I thought I was alone.”
Mr. Stillman smiled at her. “You could have been.”

In “The Cosmopolitans,” the young strivers confidently proclaim themselves “Parisian” to a deeply unimpressed American fashion journalist, played with exquisite disdain by Ms. Sevigny.

One young man is in an on-again-off-again relationship with a French divorcée
named Clémence (a character inspired by Ms. Monnier). His friends gloat that he has “infiltrated French society at its most resistant.”

To which Ms. Sevigny’s character responds, incredulously, “You guys have girlfriends with names like Clémence?”
There’s always a temptation to conflate Mr. Stillman’s work with his biography. In “Metropolitan,” the main character, Tom, is a child of divorce, with an absent father (thanks to a wicked stepmother), who pines for a young heartbreaker named Serena, who simultaneously wooed a number of boarding school boys with her prodigious letter writing, all of which Mr. Stillman experienced.

The other day, Ann Pyne, president of McMillen, Inc., the design firm, and the real-life model for Serena, said recently that while her character throws away all of Tom’s letters, she saved Mr. Stillman’s, and has them still, tied in ribbons in a cardboard box. They are romantic dispatches from another world, written in perfect cursive on letterpress stationary and filled with musings on agrarian socialism and Mr. Stillman’s appreciation of Ms. Pyne’s charms.

“Whit wasn’t a very natural 15-year-old,” she said. “He was playing a literary role and he had cast me into a literary role as well. As a grown up, I remember feeling flattered by my part in ‘Metropolitan,’ because, at 40, I wasn’t worried about being a bitch. Whereas dreary? That was cause for worry.
“Mostly I remember weeping with excitement that Whit had gotten everything exactly right, which is not to say that he just took the biography and put it out there. As an artist, he liberated the material from its time and place.”

On a recent Saturday night, Mr. Stillman and Ms. Monnier met Carolin Young, an American friend, gastronomic historian and culture writer, at Café Hugo on the Place des Vosges, after which they toured Victor Hugo’s house. Noting the Parisian pretensions of the characters in “The Cosmopolitans,” Ms. Young and Mr. Stillman said emphatically that Paris wasn’t exactly home for them, but it was certainly home base.

“What confuses people about Whit is that his films are autobiographical, but they are also fiction,” Ms. Young said later. “And that gets problematic sometimes. It’s hard to separate the characters in the films from Whit himself. Part of what he loves about living here, I think, is that not many people know the films, so he doesn’t have to play Whit Stillman. He can just be Whit Stillman.”

Mr. Stillman, however, doesn’t quite agree. “I’m not really sure I know what that means,” he said. As an American in Paris, “I think I’ve enjoyed the isolation when I wasn’t horribly lonely.”

Published: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/09/fashion/whit-stillman-director-paris-home.html?_r=0

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