In our culture of immediacy, Whit Stillman has always refused to be a slave to the present – a refusal that first earned him a devoted following and then deprived him of a livelihood.
His celebrated “Doomed-Bourgeois-in-Love” trilogy – Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (’94), The Last Days of Disco (’98) – felt nostalgic even at the time. These films are all top-heavy with dialogue, dripping in trenchant wit, and peopled with Ivy League grads who might have stepped out of a Scott Fitzgerald, flappers-and-philosophers yarn – the same lost-generation lyricism, the same brittle alloy of privilege and disillusionment.
In the 14 years since Stillman last made a movie (not for lack of trying), the advent of social media has entrenched the culture even more firmly in the immediate, in the right-here-and-now of the Twitterverse. So what’s a quant fellow like Whit to do?
Apparently, retreat even further, go retro with a stylized vengeance. Damsels in Distress is set on the campus of a rich East Coast college, where the references are contemporary but the look is decidedly not. Don’t expect to see a cellphone or hear a tweet – there’s not a hand-held device in sight. Also, despite the preppy milieu, don’t expect the social realism of his earlier work either. For all their elevated banter, those characters were three-dimensional and fully rounded. Quite deliberately, these aren’t – artifice is the watchword here.
Indeed, the artifice begins with the title, a play on the 1937 Fred Astaire musical, A Damsel in Distress, and continues with the floral names doled out to the starring quartet of co-eds: Violet is the leader (Greta Gerwig), Rose is her second-in-command (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Heather is a trusty lieutenant (Carrie MacLemore) and Lily is the new recruit (Analeigh Tipton).
Together, the fab-smelling four wend their perfumed way through the “awful acrid odour” of a campus that was once the exclusive domain of young men. Not that the males, a collectively unimpressive lot, have evolved much – Xavier is a mere playboy, Fred is an artful dissembler and the rest are the morons who populate the “D.U.,” a frat house that has upgraded from Greek to Roman lettering. Yep, these lads are some dumb.
In the midst of such masculine inferiority, Violet lays out her mission statement early on: “There’s enough material here for a lifetime of social work.” For starters, she and her posse run a “Suicide Prevention Centre,” treating depressives with double doses of aromatherapy and tap dancing.
Yes, the satire is as broad as the targets – tumbling educational standards, lofty undergrad ideals, the cult of victimhood and its faddish remedies. And with the cast all performing in uninflected monotones, we’re initially perplexed by the sheer unreality of it all. Far from Stillman’s usual comedy of manners, this stuff just seems mannered, archly so. What in the name of Jane Austen has gotten into him?
But then something twigs. It happens as the chief damsel, betrayed by her goofball boyfriend, falls into distress herself, prompting Rose to remark: “How can someone so smart mope over a dope like that?” That’s when the method emerges from the stylized madness: Unreality is precisely the point here. If our era, any era, is lacking in rhyme or reason, the choices are clear: Stay in the slough of despond or, like Violet, rise up and smell the coffee – actually, in this case, the soap. In other words, embrace the absurd, which is exactly what Stillman sets out to do, turning the film into a pastiche of surreal tropes that range from broad farce all the way to his trademark wit.
So when Fred is heard to theorize about the decline of decadence, lamenting that homosexuality has regressed from “something refined, hidden, aspiring to the highest forms of expression” to “just a lot of muscle-bound morons running around in T-shirts,” we’re on familiar Stillman ground, and laugh.
But the ground shifts when, like Astaire dancing out of his Depression, Violet puts on her tap shoes to join the ensemble in a gyrating rendition of Things Are Looking Up. It takes longer to laugh at that, but eventually we do.
Okay, eventually I did. You may not. But, even after his 14-year absence, this much is certain: No one but Whit Stillman could have made this film. It’s strangely memorable because it’s uniquely his, and that’s a rarity these days – thankfully, he’s still out of step with the times.
Damsels in Distress
- Directed and written by Whit Stillman
- Starring Greta Gerwig and Analeigh Tipton
- Classification: PG
- 3 stars