To Paris with Loquaciousness: Whit Stillman comes to television (aka, Amazon)

Say what you want about Amazon’s being bad for bookstores and publishers — as far as TV content is concerned, the company’s doing a decent job of providing a venue for less-than-mainstream projects. Take, for example, The Cosmopolitans, directed by Whit Stillman, one of the pilots released at the end of August as part of Amazon’s latest pilot season. Stillman is known for films like Metropolitan (1990) and The Last Days of Disco (1998), about aimless twenty-somethings trying to find direction in their lives while living it up in New York. If you watch a Stillman film for the first time you might be reminded of Gossip Girl or Girls, but Stillman avoids the soap-operatic plot twists of the first and the graphic sexuality of the second (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Stillman’s characters are almost always stylishly groomed and engaging in dryly witty repartee;  even though they’re just as preoccupied with romance and sex as Hannah and her friends, for Stillman to actually show his characters having sex onscreen would ruin the Austenesque mood he creates.


In The Cosmopolitans, Stillman shifts his focus from New York socialites to expatriate socialites living in Paris; if you’re a fan of Midnight in Paris, this show presents the city as equal parts exotic and homey in the way that made Allen’s film so appealing. Stillman makes the most of the city’s inherent beauty, setting scenes in sunny city squares and opulent houses that provide constant eye candy for you, the viewer. The refined gorgeousness of the setting helps you understand, if not approve, the self-important manner in which many of the characters carry themselves — the place almost seems to almost demand pompousness of those who visit it.


The most recognizable actors in the pilot are Adam Brody as Jimmy, a native of some place that isn’t the O.C., who aspires to assimilate into Parisian culture, and Chloë Sevigny as Vicky, an American fashion designer who looks on the social pretensions of Jimmy and his friends with condescension. Both Sevigny and Brody have worked with Stillman before, Sevigny in The Last Days of Disco and Brody in Damsels in Distress (2011), a film Stillman made after an over ten-year break from Hollywood. The rest of the cast is comprised of Carrie MacLemore as Aubrey, Jordan Rountree as the lovelorn Hal, Adriano Giannini as Italian stoner Sandro, and Freddy Åsblom as the baby-faced Parisian playboy Fritz.


With the exception of Sevigny, all the characters appear to be jobless, and well-off enough financially that they don’t have to worry about being unemployed. As infuriating as some us might find that, since we don’t happen to be in such  cushy positions ourselves, the most enjoyable moments of the pilot occur when the characters’ comic attempts to prove themselves to be as cultured as the natives around them fail miserably.  Jimmy comes off as comically desperate when insisting to Vicky that he and his friends are true “Parisians” because “they’re not living anywhere” other than Paris. Later, he ogles a blonde woman at a party, exclaiming “French women are so beautiful,” only to be dismayed upon discovering that she is actually from (horror of horrors!) Canada; by the end of the night, he’s flirting with her again.  Vicky’s hypocrisy is just as amusing; she dismisses an American expat like Jimmy as a “loser” only to admit a minute later that she’s never dated a French man.


Stillman’s humor is not all at the expense of Americans, though; French characters come off just as silly in their attempts to demonstrate their fluency with American culture. One woman objects to Hal’s use of the phrase “pretty great,” retorting: “Is there an ‘ugly great’? … I know the English language and I think you made [the phrase] up.” In a clumsy attempt to make conversation with Aubrey, Fritz asks her “isn’t [Aubrey] a boy’s name?” Later, a married Parisian man mistakes Aubrey’s name for Audrey and attempts to flirt with her by comparing her to Audrey Hepburn, even though Aubrey bears no resemblance to the actress. You might be tempted to immediately dismiss this married man, Philip, as a slimeball, but Stillman suggests that Philip’s penchant for extramarital affairs is considered acceptable according to the sexual standards of French culture. If the pilot is picked up to series, one of the main reasons to watch will be to see how the monogamously-minded Aubrey and Hal resist, or give into, the more liberal sexual norms of their new environment.


If you have any experience watching Whitman’s films, The Cosmopolitans will seem charmingly retro; apart from their use of cell phones, the main characters are basically indistinguishable from those that populated Stillman’s earlier work, and not just because a couple of them are played by actors who’ve worked with the director before. If you don’t have any previous exposure to Stillman, just know that your enjoyment for this show will probably depend on how much patience you have for stories about intelligent, rich, white young adults living in a manner that would seem enviable to many people not in their positions, but which somehow leaves the young adults themselves unsatisfied. It would hardly be the first show that fits that such a description to find success.


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