Quite some time ago (November 22, 2006 to be exact), I wrote a post on my Tombrarian blog asking “Whatever Happened to Whit Stillman?” At the time, Stillman had written and directed three movies (Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco) and then fell off the cinematic radar until recently. I thoroughly enjoyed these three films and always had mixed feelings about his absence. On the one hand, loving those films made me want more. On the other hand, Stillman made three great films and one would suspect that maintaining such quality could be difficult. There’s a benefit to leaving well enough alone.
When I heard that Stillman was returning to filmmaking, apparently after years of struggling to find financing for any of his projects, I was cautiously excited. After a thirteen year layoff, would he still have the wherewithal to create a film that holds up to the expectations created by his earlier successes? Would the time off bring in new influences that would drastically change the type of work he creates?
The new film, Damsels in Distress, does not disappoint but neither does it excite. It feels like a cautious re-entry into filmmaking, an effort to recapture some of the charm of the earlier films but perhaps trying too hard not to stray far from the Stillman formula. This is Stillman attempting to make a Stillmanesque movie. Present is his harsh dissecting of human relationships, societal expectations and class status.
Damsels focuses on Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her circle of friends as they navigate their college experience. As he did with the New York debutant scene in Metropolitan and the late 80’s dance scene in The Last Days of Disco, Stillman presents a very insular world. Only briefly does Damsels ever leave the college campus (humorously a Roman campus as opposed to the expected Greek). Unlike his earlier films, however, this insular world feels too insular. We never get the same sense that the college life presented here reflects on or takes place within a greater society. Absent here is anything akin to Metropolitan’s stinging criticism of inherited yuppiedom and the nagging sense of an America on the verge of economical hardships.
In all of his films, much like those of Hal Hartley, who paved the road for similar indie films, Stillman’s dialog walks a precarious line between cleverness and preciousness. Often, in Damsels, he tips more toward the latter than he had in his previous works. The dialog in Damsels feels clever for clever’s sake and not to skewer the privileged upbringing or education of the characters. That said, the dialog is often very funny and Damsels may be his most straight-forwardly humorous film. Some of this humor is fairly mean-spirited and makes light of depression and takes easy pot-shots at thinly drawn and patently stupid characters (eg the frat student who never learned his colors—maybe funny once but after a few times, it just begins to hurt). The male characters fare particularly poorly being seen as either morons (aka doofi) or players. The film makes this clear by labeling the female cast as “damsels” and the male cast as “distress.”
In many ways, Damsels in Distress will feel familiar to Stillman fans. Violet brings a new student, Lily (Analeigh Tipton), into her group of friends much in the same arbitrary way that Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman) brings Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) into his. Lily and Tom are both outsiders to these cliques who are in good positions to scrutinize and criticize the inner workings of the social interactions of the respective groups. The editor of the campus newspaper is set-up as a Rick von Sloneker type enemy. Damsels raises similar questions about “ferocious pairing off” as did Last Days. Taylor Nichols, a stalwart of the earlier films, makes a brief appearance as one of Violet’s professors.
Damsels in Distress doesn’t bring much new into Stillman’s body of work and certainly is a weaker piece but is overall enjoyable. I hope this isn’t a one shot attempt for Stillman. Damsels feels slighter than his earlier work and hopefully is just a way of shaking off the dust and easing back into the filmmaking business.