A couple of things to keep in mind when watching Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, which arrived on DVD this week:
1. It is not part four of his “Doomed Bourgeois” trilogy. Nor should it be. If Stillman had kept us waiting 12 years only to repeat himself, he would not be the artist that he is. Damsels in Distress is something different, something less dramatic and more screwball. Departure is probably too strong a word, as many of the Stillman hallmarks are there, both stylistically (dialogue-heavy, music-centered, ensemble cast, episodic storytelling) and thematically (social and relational mores, the therapeutic value of dancing, the casual verticality). Yet Damsels does not try to recreate Metropolitan, Barcelona and Last Days of Disco. And that’s okay.
2. But it is a return to the low-budget scale and charm of Metropolitan. The actors may not be quite the amateurs that the Sally Fowler Rat Pack were, but the shoot was short, the sets serendipitous, and you can tell how much fun they were having making it. Praise God.
I don’t mean to overqualify the film–it stands beautifully on its own two feet–it’s more a way to explain why I’ve found the film difficult to write about. Stillman’s earlier three movies occupy such a vaunted place in my heart that when a new addition finally appeared, the weight of expectation (and transference) was not insubstantial. And if the coverage related to its release is to be trusted, I was not the only one who struggled to view the film with fresh eyes. Critics got bogged down with concerns about realism and context (as if it weren’t self-consciously absurd and fantastical), and a few sounded disappointed that Damsels didn’t draw them in emotionally in the same way that the trilogy did (again, apples and oranges). But even if I/we weren’t bringing so much baggage with us, Stillman’s films have always benefited from multiple viewings, and Damsels is no exception. This is not a laptop-in-lap comedy.
If Damsels is not like what came before, what is it? “Four girls in a dorm who are trying to keep things civil in an uncivil world” was Stillman’s original pitch, although Damsels, like his other films, resists being reduced to plot. That is to say, the ‘narrative’ is secondary (probably one of the reasons his movies are so difficult to market). On the commentary track, the director refers to the film as an Archie comic, which is an appropriate if perhaps overly modest description. Because when was the last time you read an Archie comic?! Damsels in Distress is just as endearingly out of step (pun intended) with its surroundings as Jughead and co are these days. And while Archie’s subversiveness may be largely accidental, Damsels‘ is intentional; its mood dissents from pretty much every aspect of the Zeitgeist, albeit with politeness to spare. Take, for example, the following exchange, between Violet, the protagonist played so memorably by Greta Gerwig, and the arrogant editor of the college newspaper, Rick De Wolfe (The Office‘s Zach Woods). Asked to explain the name of the paper, “The Daily Complainer,” the following interaction ensues:
RICK DE WOLFE: The name dates from Seven Oaks’ earliest days as a divinity school. The reference is to the Book of Job; Job expresses his “complaint” with the world. The Complainer began as a theological journal but evolved into the university weekly, finally going a daily after World War Two. I like the name — before justice can be achieved, a complaint must be made. That’s what we do and people don’t like it a bit. Right now what that means is extirpating the elitist roman- letter clubs that are like a cancer on the university community–
VIOLET: Oh what nonsense!
RICK DE WOLFE: What?
VIOLET: They’re not “elitist” in the least.
[Dead silence in the room.]
RICK: Of course they are.
VIOLET: Have you met any of their members? The guys at the DU, for example? They’re morons, barely competent for the tasks of everyday life. My God, they need to drink something like a quart of beer just to talk to a woman, yet you salivate at the idea of taking the roof off these poor guys’ heads, throwing them brutally on the street where who knows what harm might come to them. And you consider yourself a Christian?
RICK: No, I don’t.
Who writes dialogue like this?! So mannered yet so funny, so offbeat yet so conventional, so unlike anything else out there, now or ever. And it is just one of many examples of what Whit described in a recent interview as dialogue that is “thesis and antithesis — and we never get to a synthesis.” (Theology nerds take note of the L/G! Not to mention the wonderfully off-handed religious references…). Stillman’s refreshingly non-, um, Hegelian approach has been consistent since the opening lines of Metropolitan, and in Damsels it receives its most wholehearted and hilarious expression. He takes it to the limit, you might say, coloring the script with countless tiny disagreements and contradictions, most of which are so dryly delivered that you might miss the humor the first time around. Indeed, the irony is layered so thick in some places that it almost circles back to plainspokenness. And that’s a big part of the film’s genius: the dialogue, like the cha-cha (and life itself!), is both utterly ridiculous and dead serious at the same time. These characters are using words–lots of them–to rationalize and analyze and intellectualize the most irrational areas of their lives, e.g. suicide, depression, jealousy, love. They may be smart about their stupidity, but that doesn’t make them any less stupid (and therefore, loveable).
One terrific exchange that was left on the cutting room floor but included in the “deleted scenes” sums it up nicely:
ROSE: One thought reassures me: Our stupidity must be part of God’s divine plan. He must have made us stupid for a reason.
VIOLET: Because he wants us to have kids? Be fruitful and multiply…
ROSE: Yes. Probably.
Of course, the obstinance of the characters doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of insightful material to chew on. Fred’s riff about the decline of decadence genuinely warrants the “Wildean” (and “Waugh-ian”) modifier that so often gets thrown Whit’s way. Lily’s praise of normalcy toward the end is about the least normal thing a person could say in our day and age. And as is always the case in his films, Stillman uses the guise of preppy snobbery to deconstruct social stratification with insight and compassion. Then there’s the not-so-subtle indictment of our male population, which may be a bit broader than the director tends to go, but it could also be seen as a daring stroke of absurdism. (Plus, if you’ve been to a college graduation recently, it might not be that far-fetched of a characterization).
The heart of the movie is Violet’s journey from conceit and self-deception to sweetness and charity. Early on, she asks, “how can you become humble if you’re essentially arrogant and… evil by nature? Humility comes from within; if it’s not there in the first place, where do you go to get it?” You could easily view the rest of the film as a (highly sympathetic) answer to that question.
What else? The jokes are so abundant that I’m sure I’ll be catching new ones for many viewings to come. A few favorites include Chubbert Checker, Artichokes, Strategic Development and of course, the racy and truly inspired gag about Catharism. Adam Schlesinger (of Fountains of Wayne fame!) and Mark Suozzo provide a memorable/essential score, and the gorgeous cinematography is markedly different from Whit’s other films, particularly in its use of sunlight. In terms of performance, while no one quite matches the career-making magnetism of Greta Gerwig–it’d be hard to, given the lines Whit puts in her mouth–Analeigh Tipton does a marvelous job, as does Adam Brody. And on each subsequent viewing, I’ve found myself laughing at Hugo Becker’s delivery more and more.
So there’s a LOT going on in Damsels in Distress. Which might actually be my only reservation: the film’s eccentricities are so pronounced, the voice so singular, that they could make Whit Stillman even more of an acquired taste than he already is. Of course, they are also evidence of a mature talent, one whose work will surely outlast popular circumstances. The bottom line is that after too many years of silence, we have been given a humble film (about humility) that’s content to carry its creator’s moral and aesthetic concerns a bit further, irrespective of how/why/where they fit into the wider landscape, and have (and poke) some serious fun along the way. In fact, when Damsels abandons comic-book fantasy for straight-up cartoon joy in its final third, the filmmaker’s delight is palpable. And if that doesn’t “glorify the Lord,” as Rose so eloquently puts it in the penultimate scene, I don’t know what does. With Whit Stillman back behind the camera, things are indeed looking up. Next stop Jamaica?! One can only hope.
p.s. Anyone catch the Audrey Rouget cameo?