The good news for longsuffering Whit Stillman fans is that the man who wrote and directed some of the most distinctive indie comedies of the ’90s is back with his first movie since 1998’s The Last Days Of Disco. The possibly less-good news is that on the surface at least, Stillman’s Damsels In Distress doesn’t seem all that Whit Stillman-y. His pet themes are nestled deep within the movie, but the exterior is brighter and zanier than anything he’s attempted before.
Analeigh Tipton stars in Damsels as a college freshman who gets roped into the social circle of three prim young ladies who run a campus suicide-prevention center: boisterous Carrie MacLemore, acerbic Megalyn Echikunwoke, and neurotic Greta Gerwig. Gerwig really runs the show, imparting life lessons about dating and hygiene, all while pursuing her dream of launching an international dance craze. So once again, Stillman is preoccupied by the manners of the young. But where Metropolitan, Barcelona, and Disco had an earnestness interlaced with the mannered comedy, Damsels In Distress is outright loopy—less Jane Austen than Little Lulu.
Which shouldn’t be that surprising, given that anyone who can pontificate about Lady And The Tramp or Scrooge McDuck the way that Stillman has in his past movies is clearly as influenced by the goofier side of pop culture as he is by the literary canon. It is strange, though, to see Stillman embrace the basic form of the ’80s campus comedy, right down to the cheesy faux-rock soundtrack. The slobs-vs.-snobs plot has been inverted here, but just a tad. In Damsels In Distress, a group of well-dressed, sweet-smelling college girls make it their mission to educate and elevate their classmates, and in so, doing clash with the artsy types, activists, and ruffians who’d be the heroes of most movies of this kind. (Actually, that’s a way this film does resemble Stillman’s earlier work, which also celebrated yuppies and debutantes instead of slackers or the underclass.)
Immersing himself in the genre the only way he knows how, Stillman paints his frat boys—who, in this movie’s warped fantasy-world are “Roman,” not Greek—as dim and helpless, and he works them into broad comic situations that come with their own quotation marks. These parts of Damsels In Distress aren’t funny so much as odd, as though Stillman were expressing his own offbeat nostalgia for a certain bygone cinematic loutishness. Stillman is much more in his element with his ladies, with their rapid-fire patter and intricate list of rules, most of which have to do with how it makes more sense to date oafs than to have their hearts broken by “players” or “operators.”
Some may find Stillman’s absurdly elevated language and deep concern with triviality to be too much to take, especially since it’s not always clear what he’s going for from minute to minute. But the method matches the meaning, as Stillman creates a thick-lined, screwball universe, then searches for its raison d’être. Damsels In Distress seems silly at first, with the way Stillman names all his female characters after flowers—Violet, Rose, Heather, and Lily—and has them talking about the dangers of being “in a tailspin.” But over the course of the movie, it becomes clearer that Stillman isn’t ignoring what should be obvious—that his “we’re just here to help heroines” aren’t just a little nutty, they’re psychologically damaged.
In fact, Gerwig’s character is so obsessed with suicide not because she’s a truly selfless person who wants to save lives, but because she’s trying to talk to herself by talking to others. When it comes to suicide, “prevention is ten-tenths of the cure,” Gerwig often says, and she finds her own prevention by creating a life for herself that’s ridiculously overscheduled and filled with unnecessary codes of behavior. When Gerwig inevitably goes into “a tailspin” and can only be snapped out of it by the smell of the perfect bar of soap—a madeleine of a kind—Damsels In Distress marries its quirkiness to something more poignant.
In the end, the self-awareness is what makes the movie work. Stillman contrasts the flighty Gerwig with the more down-to-earth Tipton, but the latter still has to deal with the hostile parts of college life that Gerwig tried to warn her about, as she deals with a boyfriend with his own weird sexual agenda. Dig beneath the zippy chatter, vivid colors, absurdist turns, and occasional dance numbers, and at heart, Damsels In Distress is a Whit Stillman movie about the way young people try to define themselves, and how—“sane” or not—they hide their petty hypocrisies behind convoluted modifications to their public identities. Which is to say: This is a Whit Stillman movie. Whatever mode he’s working in, few filmmakers have ever been as attuned to the way we cheerfully lie to ourselves, right up to the point where the truth is exposed, and we’re left with a choice between breaking down or soldiering on. Or, as so often happens in Stillman’s films, both.