It is a truth seldom acknowledged that the most delightful art is also the most didactic. Jane Austen comes readily to mind, as does the best of children’s literature. Supposed counterexamples only prove the rule. Oscar Wilde is celebrated for his dictum that “bad art is always sincere,” but he is in fact one of the most sincere of writers in the sense that in all his works virtue triumphs and vice is defeated. That few of his admirers today realize this is a testament to Wilde’s skill, for so pleasing is his wit that he can lead even the most unwilling reader to accept, even if only unwittingly, a moral truth. Wilde and Austen, to use a phrase that sounds almost paradoxical to modern ears, are delightful moralizers.
In this sense at least, Whit Stillman, writer and director of a charming trilogy of films—Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco, and Barcelona—is an Oscar Wilde for twenty-first century America. Stillman’s task is more difficult than Wilde’s, for as Mark C. Henrie writes in Doomed Bourgeois in Love, a recent collection of thoughtful essays on Stillman’s work, Stillman’s audience—“the sophisticated frequenters of art house cinemas”—prizes subversiveness above all else. To slip old-fashioned moral lessons right in front of their very eyes is a remarkable feat.
As if that were not enough, Stillman’s delightful moralizing is also—unlike Wilde’s or even Austen’s—specifically Christian. His films attempt the seemingly impossible: to vindicate the very worldview most readily derided by his audience. To say that Stillman is a moralizer is not to detract from the fact that his films are extremely fun to watch, containing dialogue that rivals the best of Noel Coward. The fun, however, is inextricably linked to the lessons imparted, for Stillman’s work is designed to both please and instruct. One often wonders while watching Stillman, “Can he really get away with saying that?” In Metropolitan, for example, one almost Burkean character, after lamenting the passing of such traditions as the detachable collar, opines that “our generation is the most barbaric since the Protestant Reformation,” thus managing in one sentence to call into question not only sixties-era cultural upheaval but also all the revolutions and emancipations of the past five centuries. Such views in any other context would not be taken as credible contributions to intelligent discussion, but rather dismissed as those of a crank.
The argument that Stillman’s films are Christian is not based merely on their religious trappings. To be sure, they are unmistakable: Metropolitan, Stillman’s first film, begins with Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” while The Last Days of Disco, Stillman’s most recent, ends with “Amazing Grace.” One character in Metropolitan provides an experiential argument for the existence of God, another in Barcelona prays for his cousin’s revival from a coma, and another in The Last Days of Disco is relieved from depression by a penitential hymn. Cathedral bells ring in the distance in all three films.
Nor is the argument based on the fact that each film upholds Christian virtues, although this is equally apparent. The chastity of Audrey Rouget in Metropolitan sets up the film’s climactic scene; the hope of Ted Boynton in Barcelona is rewarded when, after earnest and persistent prayer, his cousin Fred awakes from a coma; and the forgiveness of Josh in The Last Days of Disco toward his more cunning rival Des results in his winning the girl in the end. All three films also depict such quaint virtues as modesty, chivalry, and honesty.
What most contributes to the Christian character of Stillman’s films is the barely perceptible but, in the final analysis, unmistakable role that a specifically Christian God plays in all three. Typically, Stillman introduces the theme through disarmingly clever dialogue. Take the following exchange in Metropolitan as an example:
Charlie: Of course there’s a God! When you think to yourself—and most of our waking life is taken up thinking to ourselves—you must have that feeling that your thoughts aren’t entirely wasted, that in some sense they are being heard. I think this sensation of being silently listened to with total comprehension represents our innate belief in a supreme being, some all-comprehending intelligence. At some point most of us lose that, after which it can only be regained by a conscious act of faith.
Cynthia: And you’ve experienced that?
Charlie: No, I haven’t. But I hope to someday.
This first piece of extended dialogue in the Stillman trilogy introduces the class with which it is preoccupied: educated, articulate, self-conscious, and fretful offspring of wealthy urban families. It also, however, introduces the religious conceptions that form the very theme of Stillman’s work. As we shall see, Charlie’s argument is only half right.
Few commentators on Stillman’s films agree on whether Stillman really means to defend such much-maligned subjects as the bourgeoisie, disco, and Protestantism. Stillman himself evidently relishes the confusion he has created on this score; in The Last Days of Disco, one character delivers an ornate and impassioned paean to—of all things—disco music, while church bells peal in the background. Such ironic praise almost caricatures Stillman’s love of redeeming the irredeemable.
The same sort of confusion exists with regard to the religion of Stillman’s characters. Mainline Protestantism has been derided as philistine by the left and flaccid by the right, while liberals of the “vital center” these days no longer seem to have any use for it. Yet Stillman’s characters still cling to the religion they have inherited, despite their awareness of seemingly more compelling alternatives. Never are the religious foibles of Stillman’s characters so endearing as when in Barcelona Ted Boynton clandestinely seeks business and romantic advice in Proverbs while dancing to the tunes of Glenn Miller. After unexpectedly barging in on him with an alluring Spanish girl on his arm, Ted’s cousin Fred asks “What’s this? Some strange Glenn-Miller-based religious ceremony?” “No,” replies Ted, “Presbyterianism,” thereby causing the Spanish girl to wonder aloud, “Is this what Presbyterian churches look like?” The amusing and not altogether incorrect response is that Presbyterian churches do indeed look just like someone’s living room. Her question might as well have been: “Is this where you Americans find religious comfort?” In comparison to the transcendent Roman Catholicism of Spain’s past, and the brooding Marxism of Spain’s present, Ted’s Protestantism seems like the last place where one would look for answers.
Yet Stillman’s characters nevertheless do find answers there. Ted’s prayers that his cousin will recover from his coma are indeed answered—a point so obvious that sophisticated audiences easily miss it. Similarly, in The Last Days of Disco, we learn that shy and unsteady Josh had suffered a manic episode during which one of his favorite Episcopal hymns had become, in his words, a kind of mantra:
Dear Lord and Father of Mankind, forgive our foolish ways!
Reclothe us in our rightful mind, in purer lives thy service find,
In deeper reverence, praise.
While courting Alice, the object of his affection, Josh sings this hymn to her as they are walking through Central Park. By doing so, he is revealing and making himself vulnerable to Alice; he is also, however, offering a covert prayer. Throughout the film, Alice has made a number of romantic missteps, mistaking her lack of sexual experience as a drawback, dating the unfaithful Des, and trying to win over the environmental lawyer Tom by suppressing her most attractive qualities. Josh’s hymn is thus a plea that Alice might recognize that despite his flaws his love for Alice is made of purer alloy than that of her other suitors. In the end (although not at first), Josh’s prayer is answered, just as Ted’s prayer was in Barcelona.
With such strange juxtapositions, one wonders whether Stillman is trying to vindicate mainline Protestantism or cynically to make fun of it. Protestant pieties seem to be either a sign of mental imbalance as in Josh or lack of sophistication as in Ted, but nonetheless seem to work. The answer to this puzzle is found in those pieties themselves: American Protestantism, since the days of the Puritans, has been preoccupied with grace and redemption. Uncoincidentally, if one can extract one consistent theme from the Stillman trilogy, it is redemption through grace—redemption, that is, that comes not as a result of his characters’ meritorious effort but of their missteps and apparent misfortune. Thus, Fred in Barcelona can win over his true love only after having been shot in the eye and even temporarily forgetting who she is; Alice in The Last Days of Disco is able to make the right romantic choice only because she listens to the advice of her most treacherous friend; Tom in Metropolitan realizes that he loves Audrey only after he has successfully wooed his longtime infatuation.
The theme of redemption through grace, moreover, explains why Stillman devotes his attention to subjects that for so long have been found unattractive. His films are not valiant defenses of all things now discredited, but neither do they deride them with the sort of ironic detachment has become so en vogue. Rather, Stillman’s films simply show how good can come from the most unlikely sources. Thus, disco may have been superficial and narcissistic, but it also returned conversation, dancing, and formal dress to popular music. Americans abroad may be simpletons, but they are more honest and willing to stand up for the right than their European counterparts. Debutante balls may exist only for the privileged, but they also encourage good manners and liberal education (rather than the narrow philistinism found among the upper crust in popular movies such as Titanic). Lastly and most importantly, American Protestantism may not be rich in mystery or philosophic insight, but it is a religion of simple truths and simple faith.
Faith, indeed, is always rewarded in Stillman’s films. Audrey in Metropolitan, Ted in Barcelona, and Josh in The Last Days of Disco all possess an unselfish love that is at first rebuffed but eventually rewarded. Other characters—Tom in Metropolitan, Fred in Barcelona, and Alice in The Last Days of Disco—love badly at first and consequently cannot achieve happiness until they overcome their own egotism. Redemption through grace is thus for Stillman not the severe Calvinist dogma that redemption can come only to the radically undeserving, but rather the warmer and more humane teaching that it always comes in unexpected ways. There is another Christian term for this: Providence. Charlie in Metropolitan is right that God is always listening and watching, but he is wrong that we must consciously recover His presence; on the contrary, He makes Himself present to us if we are prepared to receive Him.
Stillman the director brings out this theme just as skillfully as does Stillman the screenwriter. In Metropolitan, a sorrowful Audrey walks down Park Avenue, as the lit windows of the Pan Am building form a cross above her. Here, in one picture, is the whole of Stillman’s religious sensibility: as Audrey suffers, Providence looks over her, shining forth in the most unlikely of places—a stark, post-Bauhaus, commercial office building. As the rest of the films show, Providence looks over her not merely in symbol but in fact.
Stillman has thus revived not only the tradition of the delightful moralizer, but another just as great—that of the Christian allegorist. Three generations ago, the members of a famous British cenacle expounded in their various works their shared sense of the romance and adventure of Christian faith. Like C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Dorothy Sayers, Whit Stillman advances an aesthetic vision that cannot help but appeal to a certain repressed yearning in all but the most Laodicean viewer. In the very act of enjoying his films, Stillman’s audience confirms the superiority of the Christian worldview.
Austin W. Bramwell is a student at Harvard Law School. His articles have appeared in the Weekly Standard, Intercollegiate Review, and the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy.