09/11/2014 05:50 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Americans in Paris: Whit Stillman and The Cosmopolitans


The Cosmopolitans, pilot episode, August 2014 (Amazon Studios via Amazon Instant Video)

The first episode of Whit Stillman's The Cosmopolitans is now available online. Part of the third season of Amazon Studio's television pilots, The Cosmopolitans tells the story of a small band of Americans living in Paris -- following them on Saturday afternoons until the wee, small hours of Sunday morning.

You know Whit Stillman. Some of us already love Whit Stillman, and have since his small gem of a 30-square-block masterwork, Metropolitan, appeared with little fanfare but a sweet, soft, jazzy sound in 1990. Set during debutante season in Manhattan, Metropolitan might have touched nerves chiefly for wealthy white Manhattanites and Ivy League undergraduates, but Stillman's sparkling dialogue, the performances of a pack of fresh young actors, and the beautiful filming of New York and Long Island remain delights nearly 25 years later. Still moments are as memorable as the conversations: a girl stops before the windows of a regal New York bookstore, now gone, to look at the six volumes she wants for Christmas, the Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen; a boy waits amid the bright late-night lights for a crosstown bus because he can't afford a cab. During this movie, I fell for the only time for a Yalie -- a fictional one, to be sure -- the smiling, cynical yet warm-hearted Nick (Chris Eigeman). Stillman won an Academy Award nomination for Best Screenplay for Metropolitan, and followed it with Barcelona (1994), and The Last Days of Disco (1998). He moved to Paris, then, for over a decade, returning to America, and theaters, with Damsels in Distress (2011).

F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of his favorite writers and one of the best-known American expatriates of 1920s Paris, has in his work something Stillman admires, and that shows in The Cosmopolitans: "a seductive, wonderfully romantic version of things which I find very appealing." Yet, as Stillman cautioned in a recent interview, this romantic view is "not comical, and it's not healthy. It's really unhealthy." Fitzgerald could be immensely funny, from his jokes and wordplay to laconic one-liners like one of Nick Carraway's best, in The Great Gatsby (1925): "As for Tom, the fact that he 'had some woman in New York' was really less surprising than that he had been depressed by a book." Yet in his two great novels written partly in France (Gatsby) and set there (Tender Is The Night), Fitzgerald settled into what he himself called "nostalgia or flight of the heart."

The Cosmopolitans is at once a work of nostalgia and possibility, of then and now. Parts of the pilot episode, "The Broken-Hearted," look and feel like it could be 1925, 1985, or a moment ago, as you were watching, and already past something you'll never have the chance for again. Stillman likes to work with actors he's worked with before, and that intensifies some of the feeling of déjà vu all over again, in a good way. Carrie MacLemore and Adam Brody (Damsels) star in The Cosmopolitans, with a bright cameo by Chloë Sevigny (Last Days of Disco). Sevigny plays a fashion journalist, who, along with café employees, taxi drivers, and drug dealers, is one of the only people who seem to have a job. This is very America-expatriate: Fitzgerald's folks didn't work, either; nor do Hemingway's, except for Jake Barnes's intermittent writing, in The Sun Also Rises (1926).


MacLemore, actually from Alabama, plays Aubrey, from Alabama, without much accent. We meet her first in her apartment with a fractional view of the Seine, and she passes lovers and bateaux-mouches as she walks to the café where two young(ish) Americans and an older Italian guy are, of course, talking about women. The Americans, Brody and a wonderfully tormented Jordan Rountree (whose French girlfriend has just dumped him for, possibly, the 16th time), and the suave Italian (an excellent Adriano Giannini), don't so much pounce on Aubrey as adopt her. A running joke is that all the Americans think they're passing as Parisian, and approach each other speaking halty French at first, before continuing entirely in English as the actual Parisians around them shrug. "Audrey," they insist her name must be. With her big eyes, sweet smile, and slightly helium voice, this Aubrey's no Audrey, Hepburn or -- to name the girl who remains Stillman's finest heroine, Metropolitan's Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina). Yet she is appealing, even, at least in the first episode, as rather a foil for the men.


There has to be the annoying guy with rich parents, who gives great parties in a house so nice that you are necessarily friendly with him. The older Italian guy is going to cause trouble for the comparative kids. And there will be dancing. Of course you know the sambola, that international dance craze. The moment of beautiful people -- including Dree Hemingway, the writer's great-granddaughter -- swirling and turning and dancing perfectly makes you wish, really wish, that such a scene could actually be, at a party you attend, some day.


Most of all, there has to be Paris. Stillman is a master of that Modernist elision, in the joining sense, of character and place. The Cosmopolitans makes Paris a character every bit as much as Manhattan, the Valley of Ashes, and the Eggs are characters in Gatsby, or Dublin is the central character in James Joyce's Dubliners (1914). The Cosmopolitans is a half hour's cheap vacation to Paris. Yes, there is much talking in The Cosmopolitans, but the silences are golden: vignettes of the straight 19th century buildings of Rive Gauche; the bateaux-mouches, constant by day and night; the Seine bookstalls; the two a.m. bridges making a City of Light.


Stillman has been criticized throughout his career for a sophisticated narrowness -- rather like what Jane Austen called, in speaking about her own writings, "the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush." Austen was being ironic with her nephew. Never mistake perfection with limiting. From the moment Joan Osborne's tremendous voice begins the show, singing the title's track, to the last look at the Seine, The Cosmopolitans is gently, humorously, elegantly thrilling -- but entirely thrilling. We need more thrill like this in our world.

Images from The Cosmopolitans via and © Amazon Studios/Prime Instant Video