October 17, 2017

Posted April 28, 2012 by D. K. Holm

For a film reviewer or a fan, Whit Stillman is a hard sell, which is probably why he has only made four films in 22 years. A regular Terence Malick, he works mostly outside the mainstream Hollywood avenues of film production, and takes his time with projects. But more important, Mr. Stillman makes the kinds of movies that seem to be from another era. In this, he slightly resembles Canadian Guy Maddin, whose movies seem to come from another planet, but with Mr. Stillman’s films we have a man who harks back to characters, settings, plot contrivances, and references that are reminiscent of 19th Century literature.

Damsels in Distress is Mr. Stillman’s new film, and it will be instantly familiar and cozy to his viewership, who can sink into it like a comfy couch. It bears the telltale Whitmanian markings: articulate dialogue spoken by intelligent characters; a bucolic setting where mostly young women navigate bizarre social customs; and a narrative whimsy that brushes aside the traditions that cater to audience expectations.

The story takes place on a fictional Eastern ivy league campus. Three female students – Violet (Greta Gerwig), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) – take on a newcomer fourth to mentor, as if they were in a Jane Austen novel. Lily (Analeigh Tipton of Crazy Stupid Love) is a sophomore transfer student, and has a strange and strained relationship with one fellow, meets a second, and ends up with third. Partners or near partners are traded or hunted between Lily and Violet, who with the other girls runs a suicide prevention center on campus – and one of her clients even steals Violet’s current beau. Not that the girls ever seem to “love” their BFs in the conventional sense. They view them as reclamation projects, because of their immaturity and sheer ignorance of simple things. Lily, on the other hand, begins dating Xavier (Hugo Becker), a foreign student who is a follower of the heretical Franco-Christian sect the Cathars (in Metropolitan, one of the characters claimed to be a follower of Charles Fourier, the noted utopianist and inventor of the word “feminism”). Cathars are defined more by what they don’t believe than what they follow, and among the many things they didn’t believe in was sexual intercourse and reproduction, which strikes the viewer as self-annihilating as the Herero tribe inGravity’s Rainbow. The Cathar solution for sexual relief is anal sex, which takes Lily aback.

Among Violet’s hobbies is creating a dance craze, and like all Stillman films, dance is an important element of the narrative. Mr. Stillman portrays a stiff, wooden world of careful speech and analyzed emotions, and like the tango for the Finnish, dance is their release, which conjures the image of a Mitt Romney trying to do a frug. As in a Bollywood movie, Damsels ends in a song and dance number.

Greta Gerwig is the noted mumblecore darling. She is blonde and broad and square jawed and even tempered even when she is having a nervous breakdown. She walks forcefully and with determination, with a wide thumping pace, like a modern Eleanore Roosevelt. But the Stillman worldview is as different from mumblecore as a genre can get. Far from mumbling or sitting in dense strained silence, Mr. Stillman’s characters talk, and their speech is clear prose rather than desperate yelps of desire. But Mr. Stillman’s films are also very much out of the mainstream Apatow-style of comedy with its crowd pleasing plot points and vulgar characters. Stillman’s world is one of transitional conservative elitism, and farters, burpers, potheads, and scammers need not apply.