Breaking the Silence, Sort Of: Whit Stillman’s DAMSELS IN DISTRESS
Wherefore art thou, O Whit Stillman? Though never exactly a blur in motion, the minor auteur managed to generate three hyper-stylized, hyper-talky meditations on manners, morality and money throughout the ‘90s—the last of which, Last Days of Disco, proved his best known and arguably finest. After that, rumors about him licking his wounds in Europe swirled for years, though little was definitively known about his goings-on. Now, after a nearly decade-and-a-half gap in his curriculum vitae, Damsels in Distress marks his first venture back into cinema. And lo! what an odd re-entry it is.
It’s not that this series of vignettes about a year at Seven Oaks University, a fictional liberal arts college, is terrible. Nor does it mark much of a departure in form or function for Stillman, who’s always liked to focus on old-fogeyish young people. It’s just that, despite its many clever bits and terrific cast, including mumblecore siren Greta Gerwig, this film sounds a wan echo of Stillman’s earlier work. Intentionally or not, he has fashioned here an auto-valentine to his already-established tropes (a murky mentor and her ingénue; the watered-down Kool-Aid of an elite subculture; the questionable merits of nostalgia; the healing power of dance), and it comes with less certitude and many more protestations than does his previous work.
Take the film’s opening minutes, in which 50s-style elevator music swells while big-co-ed-on-campus Violet (Gerwig), flanked by her lackeys Heather and Rose (all three clad in floral prints, lest we not get the flowergirl motif), approaches transfer student Lily (Crazy Stupid Love’s rubbery faced Analeigh Tipton). “You were unhappy at your old school,” Violet says. “Would you prefer our guidance or to sink or swim on your own?” Predictably, Lily opts for the former, and she preens and then bristles under their tutelage as she stumbles through the university’s rarified ecosystem of body-odor-afflicted education majors, aggressively moronic fraternity brothers, tap-dancing depressives, anal-sex-fixated foreign grad students, and, yes, damsels in distress.
Like all of Stillman’s characters, the girls and boys of this world speak in a halting schoolmarm-ese (no contractions, no cussing, no colloquialisms) that betrays the vehemence of their fastidiously parsed paragraphs. On topics ranging from the acceptable plural of doofus (doofi? doofuses?) to the human tendency to seek those cooler than ourselves, Violet and her peers deliver speeches and aphorisms with strangely ineffective hand gestures and a minimum of flair. Says eighth-year ed student Fred (Adam Brody, whose apparent nose job reinforces his blank, tabula rasa demeanor): “I do romanticize the past. It’s gone, so we may as well romanticize it.” Says Lily: “We value idiosyncrasies and uniqueness but really such people are pains in the asses.”
As you watch, you get the sense that Stillman has been chomping at the bit for years to serve up these unique, idiosyncratic, pain-in-the-ass gems, and so he wishes them as unadulterated as possible. To that end, these kids are oddly indistinguishable, although each bears one branding characteristic. Rose is haughty (and black! With this film, Stillman has finally broken his racial barrier); Heather is cheerily dimwitted; Lily is a reluctant ingénue; and Violet, who, as Stillman’s most overt stand-in, is also most fully fleshed out, prevails as an earnestly flawed Jane Austen-style heroine. Say what you will about Stillman, he does know his Austen.
The girls’ stances and passions, if they have them, seem to spring from nowhere and just as quickly evaporate, while their many beaus prove interchangeable—liars or dolts, all of them. Even such marginal characters as campus policemen and waitresses utter Whitticisms in the writer-director’s patented cadences. Obviously cats like David Mamet feature a similar homogeneity in tone, but Mamet Stillman is not. And I don’t even like Mamet.
The problem is that since all these kids are so blank, only Stillman, as the narrative voice, is in on his many jokes (“I fled to a Hotel 4, even more economical than a Hotel 6,” states Violet flatly in an account of post-breakup despair.) It’s a pat-himself-on-the-back device that quickly rings hollow: Characters as cogs. The fact that, as a technician, he doesn’t produce much to write home about here doesn’t help. Pastel and bracingly bright, the film often resembles a Lifetime TV movie—sun-splashed is the name of the game—and its pacing is as ungainly and stiff-legged as these young people’s gaits. (Sharp editing proved a saving grace in his earlier trifecta.)
Near the end, Damsels abruptly transforms into a paean to Fred Astaire, complete with a few inexpert ensemble musical dance numbers. At that point, not uncharmed, I threw up my hands. Just like the paper-thin storylines of Astaire’s movies always functioned as mere filler between his dance numbers, plot and character are apparently mere conduits for Stillman’s signature shouts and murmurs. Lest this connection not be fully drawn, one morose Seven Oaks student even insists upon being referred to as Freak Astaire. Fuck subtext, Stillman seems to be saying. Whit Disney world is my oyster, and herein lie my pearls.
As I left the screening, I described myself to a colleague as feeling “vexed.” “Now you’re talking like the movie,” he replied drily and, indeed (even in the paragraphs above), I’ve fallen prey to its sticky vernacular. Despite myself, I have to admit that I’ll probably be happily charmed by this world for years to come—albeit most likely, and most preferably, in 15-minute snatches on 2 AM cable. Just the gems, ma’am.
Lisa Rosman writes the indieWire film blog New Deal Sally and has reviewed film for Marie Claire, Time Out New York, Salon.com, LA Weekly, Us Weekly, Premiere and Flavorpill.com, where she was film editor for five years. She has also commentated for the Oxygen Channel, TNT, the IFC and NY1. You can follow Lisa on twitter here.