I often find myself defending my affection for Whit Stillman’s films to a certain kind of youngish film cognoscente who argues that: a) Stillman’s work is unable to transcend the limitations of the chattering preppy class it both celebrates and anatomizes; b) this chosen milieu is in the first place politically irresponsible, especially since he doesn’t subject his characters to some kind of Buñuelian smackdown; and c) his conservative sensibility is reflected in a “flat” visual style that prizes talk over, well, visuals. This youngish cognoscente would far sooner see a lawyer or a debutante shot, beheaded, or shamed, à la Haneke, than allowed to sit around flirting on the roof of a hotel. Down with manners! Up with transgression! We want punk rock, and this motherfucker up and makes a movie that sincerely bemoans the last days of disco?
I am happy to report, then, that Stillman’s new film Damsels in Distress is rather deranged, and sad to say that I don’t imagine it’ll win him any new fans. It is, on the surface, a pastel-hued campus comedy, peopled with characters who seem to have learned to converse either by watching Whit Stillman’s previous movies or (in the case of the knuckle-headed “fraternity boys”) by reading Tucker Max. It is so aggressively “light” and “airy”—and so aggressively, unapologetically a Whit Stillman movie—that the film’s dark undercurrents are likely to go unnoticed by viewers already primed to dismiss Stillman as a trivial comedian of manners. But those who dig the Stillman weather will find that it’s never been stormier than it is here; the candy-colored artifice works to accentuate the existential fears at the movie’s core, and the result is nearly hallucinogenic.
Greta Gerwig plays Violet Wister, a prim and principled student at a fictional East Coast college called Seven Oaks who, along with a cadre of equally prim (the uncharitable would say “priggish”) young coeds, attempts to cure the student body of its melancholy, social ungainliness, and lack of hygiene through a suicide prevention center that offers, by way of counseling, scented soaps and dance. The latter, Violet imagines, is her most important contribution to the well-being of her fellow students; tap, jazz, ballet, not to mention the dance craze she hopes to invent herself one day, all offering “effective therapies for the suicidal and hopelessly depressed.” (In typical Stillman fashion, Violet describes her project to a new recruit in the kind of needlessly complicated language that implies a profound—and profoundly comic—lack of self-awareness: “We’re trying to make a difference in people’s lives, and one way to do that is to prevent them from killing themselves.”) But Violet is no social worker, priming for a stint in the inner-city schools. In her altruism, she is the political inverse of every earnest collegian I met at my own liberal arts camp. She is not trying to free Palestine; she is trying to save the fraternities from being shut down, because where else would all those addled young men find a place to live?
See what I mean about Damsels not exactly ingratiating itself to the unconverted? It baits the unconverted. Violet is the reductio ad absurdum of Stillman’s impish tendency to amplify his characters’ conservative sensibilities. So many of the characters in Stillman’s first three movies—Metropolitan, Barcelona, and the remarkable The Last Days of Disco—are unashamed yuppies, snobs, defenders (in Barcelona) of American cold war policy, capitalists, readers of Lionel Trilling—the list of unfashionable points of reference and politically retrograde convictions goes on and on. What’s more, Stillman’s characters tend to defend these convictions at length, in verbal arias that make his detractors want to scream (because they seem to be speaking directly to his detractors). When a leftist appears in their midst (the Fourierist in Metropolitan, the union-organizerin Disco), he or she eventually succumbs to the charms of the nightclub or the deb party; the beautiful women and the nice things, already taken for granted by the well-heeled insiders, are far more powerful and immediate than the theoretical communal farm. (This fact aside, very few contemporary American directors have been as concerned with, or as specific about, what their characters actually do for work as Stillman has.)
But then—and this is important—the bottom drops out. Deb parties die. Disco dies. The cold war ends. The contexts in which his characters thrive are revealed not as eternal and immutable nurturers, but as fleeting moments in time—and are already gone by the time we watch the films. Stillman’s insistence on sympathetically commemorating those times reveals itself not as conservativism or nostalgia, but as a genuinely wise comic vision. The philosopher Henri Bergson imagined the source of all comedy as human inflexibility (what he called “something mechanical in something living”); an obstinacy—in mind, or body, or both—that refuses to adapt to change, mechanistically chugging along in a straight line even as the banana peel falls in its path, the subject changes at a dinner party, the rules and manners of a particular society crumble or are configured anew. (Does this principle not explain why the Republican debates are so funny?) Stillman’s characters are funny because their “common sense” is a form of delusion; he is wise because he does not provide the kind of satirical distance that allows (some of) us to sit comfortably back and nurture our own “common sense.”
Which brings me back to Damsels, which is both set in the present day and at a further remove from recognizable reality than anything in his oeuvre. This tension makes perfect sense when you realize that Stillman is trying to do something he hasn’t before, which is to reverberate onscreen the inner life of a character who is very close to being out of her mind. In her pathological attempt at “youth outreach”—an attempt to, at the end of the day, turn the world around her into a Whit Stillman movie—Violet nearly reaches the status of holy fool; imagining the kind of ridicule such a woman would face at most actual colleges is part of the experience of watching this movie, and is poignant.
Violet is obstinacy incarnate, and Greta Gerwig’s performance is perfect; she delivers Stillman’s lines with a slight quaver in her voice, as though talking this way will save her from … herself? Alas, she does not prevent any suicides (save her own), but she does invent that dance craze; the film ends with an ecstatic, slightly ungainly musical number that quite literally invites the audience to join in. Common sense, of course, prevented me from doing so.