His first picture in 14 years, Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress (2012) revolves around three college girls who recruit a new student for their suicide-prevention center (at fictitious Seven Oaks College) and for their larger idealistic purpose of gently freeing the college from male “barbarism.” In other words, they want their milieu to be more refined, albeit the leader of the pack is the strikingly eccentric Violet (Greta Gerwig), who aspires both to help the depressed–the suicidal–and to start a new dance craze. The new recruit is reasonable Lily (Analeigh Tipton) and the other two coeds are Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore). Yes, they all bear the names of either flowers or flowery plant life.
I mentioned male barbarism, but Damsels is not a feminist film. It is, in fact, philosophically conservative. Violet says of her quartet, “We are all Christians. Or, well, Judeo-Christians”–an important line.
What Stillman, writer and director, constructs here is a world which doesn’t really exist, but through which we receive messages and implications about the world which does exist: our world. One of the implications seems to be that “God’s in his heaven” and the human condition is not so bad. (Unfortunately, after Violet loses her boyfriend and sinks into a depression, what gets her over it is not at all credible.)
Too, there’s a message that eccentricity, Salvador Dali-like “madness”, has little worth in our culture, that, according to Lily, “what the world needs is a large mass of normal people.” And it may also be that Stillman is telling us that unless we generate what we genuinely value–everything from good hygiene to sensible religious belief–naught but absurdity will prevail.
Damsels in Distress is seriocomic and intelligent. Only intermittently is it funny, but altogether it is very droll and very charming. Stillman is still not examining his characters, although this time around it is rather unimportant since he’s letting go of verisimilitude anyway. Like his Last Days of Disco, the current film ends with delightful dancing–in one sequence, to the tune of a Fred Astaire song. This is how Stillman expresses his optimism but, well, since Violet considers dancing therapeutic, maybe in addition the folks here are giving a bit of therapy a try. Who knows? It would sort of justify Violet’s nutty idea of starting a new dance craze.