Sillier and Stranger
When we last left Whit Stillman, he was orchestrating a subway dance party for the charming end credits of The Last Days of Disco (1998). He returns after 14 years bearing Damsels in Distress, still in a dancing mood. His heroine, Violet (Greta Gerwig), a junior at Seven Oaks College, wants to start an “international dance craze” and bases her suicide-prevention program on the “proven therapy” of tap.
Violet and her florally named sidekicks, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), run a number of unofficial campus improvement programs, from espousing the virtues of soap and perfume to passing along dating strategies. When Violet and the girls welcome a transfer student named Lily (Analeigh Tipton) into their clique, they offer her similar guidance, for instance to find dim, average-looking frat boys to court and improve—avoiding “the tendency, very widespread, to always seek someone cooler than yourself.” They’re amateur social workers, with the emphasis on social, like creatures of Clueless—or, in more Stillman-friendly terms, Emma.
Despite her lofty confidence, Violent isn’t the only one on screen who speaks with such heightened verbosity. Stillman, directing from his own screenplay as always, still has his characters communicate with precise formality—complete sentences, sometimes paragraphs. Yet Damsels in Distress, while recognizably his own, is also unlike any of his other films: it’s sillier and stranger, less tethered to a recognizable reality. His movies are always vague about their precise moments in time (Disco is set in “the very early 1980s”), but manage to evoke specific times and places anyway. At times during Damsels, though, it seems like he has returned not from a long filmmaking hiatus but extended intradimensional travel.
In this alternate dimension, perhaps there are schools like Seven Oaks (invented for the film, locations in Staten Island and Westchester standing in for its generic East Coast leafiness) with its “Roman letter clubs” instead of Greek fraternities and seeming lack of activism, drugs or much serious debauchery—the latter is only approached as a prim joke when Lily gets involved with a self-described Cathar (Hugo Becker), who insists on particular sexual practices adhering to his beliefs. Violet and her friends are seen by other students as bothersome, perhaps, but not as flat-out bizarre as they actually are.
As alien as this campus is, though, Stillman makes it an oddly delightful place to hang out, and visually dreamy, too, dressed in bright pinks and yellows, with soft-focus sunlight pouring over the girls walking across the quad. Violet’s ideas about civilizing campus life have a sunniness to them, too, thanks in part to Gerwig, who trades her usual naturalism for near-unflappable elocution. When Violet does get depressed—“in a tailspin,” as she prefers to put it—over her doofy boyfriend Frank (Ryan Metcalf), she can’t wail or scream; walking through the rain, despondent, she can hardly bring herself to talk at all.
It’s moments like this that keep Damsels in Distress from becoming a full-on caricature gallery. It certainly comes close: some characters develop little catchphrases—Rose repeatedly refers to handsome smoothies as “playboy/operator types”—and Stillman, unaccustomed to writing for any characters shy of hyper-articulate, makes the frat boys cartoonishly (if puppyishly) dimwitted; there’s a running gag about Frank’s buddy Thor (Billy Magnussen) just learning his colors.
The audacity of this joke makes it funnier than it should be, and Stillman’s eventual explanation reveals an innocent, almost sweetly sad childishness shaping Thor’s stupidity. Like his other movies, Damsels in Distress is really about people trying to find themselves by constructing or transcending a particular social identity. Descriptions of Violet as a child (not to mention her soap obsession) make her sound obsessive-compulsive, and most of the characters reveal some sort of affectation or self-mythologizing over the course of the movie.
On its way to these revelations, the movie wanders a bit, drifting between the romantic travails of Violet and Lily, cutting scenes together more like vignettes than an accelerating comedy. Metropolitan, Barcelona, and Last Days of Disco all do their share of multi-scene noodling. Stillman’s plots always involve a loose-knit group of friends who couple, uncouple, and worry about their social reputations, the principal variations being the locations and the numbers of friends. But the new film’s stylized weirdness and more overtly comic tone don’t always match with its choppy pacing.
The discomfort is momentary, though. Damsels in Distress is, perhaps even more than Stillman’s previous work, a joyful film. There is a joy to the performances, to the careful wording of the jokes, and to the deadpan portrait of a bizarro campus. This joy is not self-amused, but generous and fizzy. Violet, beneath her primness and occasional arrogance, yearns for the simple pleasures of a dance number. Damsels in Distress feels like Stillman’s.