If you’re feeling depressed about the culture around you, Dr. Elliott has a prescription for you: one full dose of Whit Stillman’s most recent film, Damsels in Distress, followed by tap dancing. I am perfectly serious. This charming story unfolds with a group of quirky college girls on the campus of Seven Oaks, a fictitious Ivy League college, set in an indeterminate time with a retro feel. Violet, played effortlessly by Greta Gerwig, is a big-hearted but sometimes manic student, determined to prevent suicides and reform frat boys. It’s better to “find someone frankly inferior and improve them,” she tells her girlfriends as they approach the fraternity party wearing dresses and heels. “There’s enough material here for a lifetime of social work,” she remarks drily as one of the drunken lads lurches off the porch.
Violet and her friends, the moralistic Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), welcome a winsome transfer student, Lily (Annaleigh Tipton), into their group. Together they staff the campus suicide prevention center, which offers coffee and donuts to depressed students, along with therapeutic tap dancing led by “Freak” Astaire, one of their successful rescues.
The fraternities on campus are Roman letter, rather than Greek, and their Roman Holidays are reminiscent of Animal House, replete with togas and blue-faced barbarians, “moronic and boorish, but also kind of fun,” says Violet.
The fraternities are full of doufuses. Or is it doufi? (The nonstandard but preferred spelling.) Poor Thor (Billy Magnusson) doesn’t know his colors because his parents were “precocity addicts” and skipped him over nursery school, where he would have learned such things. He struggles to master them, and when he can finally recite the colors in the rainbow, it’s a cause for jubilation.
Violet leads her pack with bravado, dispensing confident advice on hygiene, dating, and how to dress. But she turns out to be more fragile than she seems when she encounters trouble with her dim-witted boyfriend, Frank (Ryan Metcalf), and goes into a tailspin. In her despair, she makes a surprising discovery about the therapeutic properties of soap.
If you enjoy witty dialogue, this is a movie for you. Whit Stillman, who wrote and directed this film, gently chides the clueless and pompous alike. Violet describes the editor of the student newspaper, the Daily Complainer as “unkind, self-righteous and pedantic–in short, a model journalist.” The Education Hall is a favorite spot for students to jump off in suicide attempts. But the building is only two stories tall, “far enough to maim but not to kill,” observes Rose tartly. “If they can’t even destroy themselves, how are they going to teach America’s youth?”
This film explores the fluidity of identity in college, when students can try on various personas. Some change their name, their accent, or their religion, for a season. Fred (played by Adam Brody) invents a fictitious business as his employer, because he is embarrassed to admit being an eighth year education undergrad student. Well, who wouldn’t be?
Whit Stillman offers the perfect antidepressant in the song “Things Are Looking Up,” his homage to George Gershwin and Fred Astaire. When the entire cast bursts into song and dance for the finale, they evoke the style of movie musicals from the 30s, with swirling and twirling skirts, splash-dancing in a fountain, followed by a kiss. Classic.
Fans of Whit Stillman welcomed this film after a 12-year hiatus since his trilogy of Manhattan, Last Days of Disco, and Barcelona. These three comedies of manners have a voice and vision unique to Stillman, depicting with wit the bookish and slightly awkward college-educated young. The dialogue crackles with literary references. In Metropolitan, Audrey asks Tom what Jane Austen novels he has read. “None,” he replies. “I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it’s all just made up by the author.” In Barcelona, Fred says, “Plays, novels, songs – they all have a ‘subtext,’ which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind. So subtext we know. But what do you call the message or meaning that’s right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what’s above the subtext?” Ted responds, “The text.” But intelligence isn’t everything, according to Violet in Damsels in Distress, who claims she loves her doufus boyfriend, Frank. “The intelligence line is not an immutable barrier,” she asserts. “You can cross it. I have.”
Imaginative conservatives have loved all of Whit Stillman’s films. He uses civil satire and suggests there is a better way without being didactic. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute published Doomed Bourgeois In Love: Essays on the Films of Whit Stillman. Mark C. Henrie brought together literary critics, classicists and political theorists to comment on Stillman’s first three films, which “sparkle with urbane and ironic wit. These essays contend that Stillman’s art is an effort to ‘ironize’ our ironic age; as such, they constitute a major achievement of Christian humanism in our time.”
That is all true. But I am personally hoping that the Sambola, the dance Violet created, will prove to be the international dance craze she hoped for, and transform the world through sheer joy. Now I just have to get my husband to practice it with me. Let’s see: spin clockwise for eight counts, do the tango walk for six counts, face-to-face for two, then eight counts of cha-cha moves….
Damsels in Distress has been released on DVD and is available for rental or purchase.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.