Damsels in Distress (2011): Waiting Ten years for Whit Stillman

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When I was twelve, I rented the film Metropolitan from my local library. I was feeling adventurous that day; I didn’t feel like seeing the same old blockbuster movie again, and the cover of the film intrigued me every time I had walked past it- an illustration of wealthy young men and women. After I watched it, I knew I had come across something special. This wasn’t like the movies I usually saw- it was mostly talking and I didn’t know any of the actors. Metropolitan follows the story of a middle-class young man who by chance falls into the complicated social lives of Upper West Side socialites.

Liking Whit Stillman (the writer/director) feels really good for people who fancy themselves sophisticated film fans. He’s just the right amount of not-well known for the fans to feel a part of an exclusive set of fans, but it’s not as if one NEVER meets someone who has seen and has opinion on his films. Stillman followed up the film with Barcelona, about two Americans navigating the elite social scene in Spain, and then with The Last Days of Disco, about two young women (played to perfection by Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny) navigating the elite social scene in early eighties New York City. Sense a pattern? Yes, Whit Stillman movies fit the genre of “white people problems”, sharing the top accolades with Noah Baumbach.

 Damsels in Distress was made almost fifteen years after The Last Days of Disco. Before the film, here was what I was foaming at the mouth about: (1) Fifteen years of preparation should, technically, ensure that it was amazing (2) It starred Greta Gerwig, Noah Baumbach’s current muse, indie-darling of the moment, an someone given an indie-darling title that I actually liked and (3) it was about a group of women set at a college. It was like Stillman himself asked me to give input on his next project.

It’s worth noting that Stillman has never had a problem with writing female characters. The women in his films are equally as conniving, conceited, and frivolous as the men. Morality and goodness are skewed in his films; in fact, they take on a presence in a unique world where it is expected that people go to bars and have long discussions about color of nail polish and Kierkegaard’s writing in the same breath. His women are fully realized people, which makes them have flaws. However, it seemed that Damsels in Distress was focusing on a group of women front and center. The title even denoted s sense of satire and irony.

The “Damsels” are four women who live together and form a tight-knit social group, naturally lead by Violet (Greta Gerwig), who actively seek out new transfer student Lily and decide to take her under their wing. The college is fictional, but imagine any small private, stone-building school in the middle of nowhere in New England (Bates, Bennington….) The group of women have a retro sensibility: they, for one, dress almost formally most of the time, in cardigans and pencil skirts, or retro-style floral dresses. Each is dealing with an issue that is of mild urgency: Violet is deciding whether to stay with her mediocre boyfriend; Lily begins a relationship with a graduate student. The women also spend a lot of their time volunteering at the suicide prevention center, and actively helping those depresses, although, it is unclear if their motives are purely altruistic or if it is to maintain some sort of identity. Additionally, Violet has a dream of starting her own dance craze, and other very twee notions.

Damsels  is problematic and the opposite of satisfying. Perhaps Whit Stillman was just making a Whit Stillman movie, but the times had changed around him? Had my tastes change? I didn’t think so, I still watch Metropolitan about once a year. The film does take place in modern time, but the women’s sensibilities and the lack of a lot of technology (everyone has a cell phone, but is not constantly on it).

I’m conflicted, because the elements that are detrimental to enjoyment of the film are the very things that seem to make other Stillman films so great. His films have a general narrative, but he also is not afraid to introduce completely new characters, relationships or events in the third act. However, in Damsels, story arcs are placed in with no sense of purpose. The characters, despite doing nothing but talking about their opinions to each other, seem very unreachable. Why is Violet the alpha of this group? How do the other women feel about it? Lily, who was aggressively pursued to become part of the social circle, doesn’t even seem to enjoy their company but does nothing about it. I don’t need that to be part of the plot, I mean, I want films to show, not tell, but here nothing is done.

Promising elements are introduced and abandoned immediately. The women attend a meeting of the school newpaper, lead by pompous asshole Rick DeWolfe (great character name). DeWolfe seems to be a sexist egomaniac, not wanting anyone to shake up how he runs things. I would love to see Violet lead a change in that arena, but nothing is done after that meeting. Violet briefly runs away to the local town for a few days, leaving everyone worried, then comes back. They lead a dance workshop that is supposed to help depressed students, but we only see that a few times.

I did watch this movie all the way through, and the elements that kept me there was the visual elements and the rhythm of the dialogue. The women in the film are absolutely stunning, and not in a way that Stillman pans the camera over their bodies for a male gaze; these women are naturally unique looking and are dressed quite well, Stillman knows how to film them so their inherent charisma shows. Stillman is also clearly adept at directing actos and their dialogue, however inane, is delivered in a way that is pleasing, despite the content not having much stake. As for the basics of directing, as in framing a scene and setting a tone, are top notch.

So where did it go wrong? Despite having more than a decade to develop, the film seems like a string of ideas from his notepad put together. Setting a film in a small elite college is an obvious choice; the characters from his previous films are always alums of such places. “There’s a group of women who….work to prevent suicide….like to dance….there needs to be an outsider whose charm is questioned by the women [played here by Adam Brody is a character that is superfluous, to say the least]. The film, despite being set in a college, feels almost claustrophobic when only involving these characters. For women so concerned with the image they are projecting, other students of the college are literally set extras. I should mention that in both Metropolitan and Last Days of Disco, the same sense of claustrophobia is present- not to mention these characters were in the densely packed New York City- but it somehow lends an advantage to the feeling of being an insider to this group.

For a huge Whit Stillman fan, this film was truly excruciating. For someone not familiar with Whit Stillman, the film was downright unwatchable. I don’t know, maybe it’s me who has changed, not Whit Stillman. I hope it doesn’t take another fifteen years for his to give it another try.

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