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It’s good to have Whit Stillman back among working directors since it’s been a long time since his last feature in 1998 (The Last Days of Disco, which followed the signature films he made in the early Nineties, Metropolitan and Barcelona). Stillman’s distinctive worldview and wry classicism are peerless in the film world, and his stories of young, advantaged people in and out of love are like no others. That’s a very good thing in the case of Damsels in Distress, because this new movie lands way off Whitman’s own mark. The comedy is arch, the performances are purposely stiff, and the narrative makes little sense – even within its own insular terms. Not that there aren’t a few good laughs at the expense of college culture along the way, but Damsels in Distress seems to be more a case of Confused Coeds.
Lovely also is it to see Greta Gerwig starring as the movie’s lead damsel, but the role is unlikely to win her the kind of attention her career needs. Gerwig plays Violet, who, along with her suitemates Heather (MacLemore) and Rose (Echikunwoke), seek to elevate the student body at their college, Seven Oaks. Exactly what they are elevating their classmates from and to is a little sketchy. The girls run a suicide center where they chase away others’ blues with tap-dancing; they disperse perfect-smelling soap to their BO-afflicted brethren; they adopt transfer student Lily (Tipton) as one of their own with whom they can swap cardigan sets. Lily is the only one of them that functions in a realm that we can recognize as semireal. Violet’s world is all artifice and postures; her language belongs to another era, and her thinking is based on hollow ideas. The artificiality of her demeanor is at odds with the character’s deepest desire: to create a new dance craze. The film’s crazy finale, in which the entire cast breaks into the Sambola – the dance she has invented – is so spontaneous and enlivening that we cannot believe it could have possibly come from the same person. The gamboling Sambola bounces with giddy expression, in contradiction to everything we have come to know about this character. Stillman inserts chapter headings and written asides into the proceedings, but none of it helps explain what is before us. The authorial voice in Damsels in Distress lacks definition.
See "Whit and Witticism," April 27, for an interview with Stillman.