University is a place of boundless idealism where mediocrities like Ayn Rand briefly acquire more relevance than they really deserve. Since ‘Metropolitan’, in which two characters argue over the relative merits of Fourierism before the film even reaches its 10 minute mark, Whit Stillman has been mining these academic impulses for comedy drama. His new film, ‘Damsels in Distress’, finds itself in similar waters, deflating and subverting the philosophical vagaries of a sweet-natured group of female students until all that’s left to smirk at is the very folly of youth.
“Come on, it’s not that bad!” This banner, hanging within the college suicide prevention centre, offers a perfect glimpse into the whimsical absurdity of ‘Damsels in Distress,’ Stillman’s first movie since 1998. The results are, if not the long-gestated masterpiece one might expect after such a long hiatus, certainly a welcome revival of his distinct brand of playful satire for the twenty first century. His work has always divided audiences between fierce loyalty and violent antipathy – there’s rarely room for neutrality – and this film is no different: Stillman’s authorial logic is still organised around the concept of youth, assessing the growing pains of adolescence and the fateful prospect of entering ‘the real world’. With irony and pastiche, we follow a quartet of females (Megalyn Echikunwoke, Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton and Carrie MacLemore) as they hopelessly attempt to ‘civilise’ the acrid emanations of the boorish fraternity lads who surround them. (Indeed, who would ever expect one of them to fall for a French student who derives his curious sexual appetite from his strict devotion to Cathar heresy?) Of course the risk of narcisstic abandon, probably inevitably, lurks in the background of a film concerning the self-styled UHB (‘urban haute bougeoisie’), but Stillman is careful to see his singular visionaries corralled or anchored to the community they serve. While their indiviual hypocrisies are duly exposed, Stillman more closesly examines their capacity for warmth and sincerity, revealing a bunch of hapless guardians of the hope that surrounds the notion of higher education. Seemingly redolent with static tablueaus and deadpan presentation, it is this outmoded quality – the four girls express more concern over the morality of existence than about their next date – which imbues the film with bittersweet melancholia and wistful tragedy.
There’s something unavoidably fresh about hearing Stillman’s mannered, meticulous dialogue performed by a new generation of young actors, all of whom have just a tinge of penumbral darkness around their gleaming edges. The male characters (Adam Brody, Ryan Metcalf and Hugo Becker) do well to attribute some humanity to their uncoloured and cartoonish roles, a rather strong indication of Stillman’s attitude toward a patriarchal society ruled by “playboy operator types” (to use Megalyn Echikunwoke’s hard-bitten catchphrase). But despite the pluralised title, the film hinges on Greta Gerwig’s full-bodied performance, especially when she attempts to start a new dance craze and attributes The Twist to a one Chubbert Checker. Known mostly for her involvement in ‘mumblecore’ cinema, Gerwig shines under both Stillman’s direction and through his way with words – her off-kilter charisma is the key to making us believe in the fanciful creation that is Violet, redeeming what could easily appear as self-indulgent and making a scene in which she rhapsodises on the precise scent of hotel soap seem of the most critical importance.
Where his plots in the past were defined by the ending of eras (‘Last Days of Disco’) or the passing of social calendars (‘Metropolitan’), there are no clues as to the year or even decade this film exists within. Whilst P.T. Anderson and Wes Anderson have both used the directors’ aesthetics to capitalise on the visibility of anachronism as a means of highlighting the pathos of historical difference (whether the delusionally cheery mileu of late 1970s Californian pornography in ‘Boogie Nights’ or the literaralised storybook world of a discordant New York clan found in ‘The Royal Tenenbaums’), Stillman has chosen to suspend his latest series of characters in a timeless, near-mythical universe of a fictional Seven Oaks campus with is Greek architecure and grandeur. Although the self-destructive naturalism of his previous work is noticeably absent here, there’s still a familiar sense of nostalgia in the evocation of the generational fear of not living up to a past forever in the process of being romanticized.
The perplexity that animates each of Stillman’s films is how to find our way when the rule book has lost its authority – the notion of women being responsible citizens who can restrain unruly men by their sound morality is often hinted at, but never really built upon. But perhaps in an age such as ours, when people are all too willing to affix an ironic tag of “first world problem” to every act unable to mask its privilege, it is not tragedy but comedy which, once again, becomes the mature response to those penetrating questions of Tolstoy: “How shall we act? What shall we do?” And while there might not be any grand statements to be found in its episodic structure, ‘Damsels in Distress’ is the type of movie that should be treasured and not tarnished for its minor problems. Although Stillman may well require a few more films to get his voice back to its full muscularity, it is clear that his ability to capture a certain strain of the student vernacular hasn’t deserted him in his hiatus. And it’s delightful to behold it anew.