Whit Stillman’s fourth film – his first in 13 years – proved unexpectedly divisive at last year’s London Film Festival. The ‘surprise movie’, it was an unwelcome gift for many – provoking walkouts and leaving a number of disgruntled punters bemused. It might seem bizarre that this seemingly airy, weightless froth could provoke such ire, but Stillman makes films for himself in every way. For many, his hermetically sealed, unique universe is too archly self-concious to be enjoyable.
The setting is a leafy, wealthy American college, where a trio of young ladies seek to correct the prevailing air of grungy, faux-outsider chic. Outspoken leader Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig) is the centre, backed up by the earnest, principled Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and aloof Heather (Carrie MacLemore). The girls live by a strict aesthetic and moral code – encouraging self-improvement via the campus’ ‘suicide centre’ and offering hygiene tips, lifestyle advice and musical therapy through dance lessons. When transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) arrives on the scene, Violet senses a potential convert and moves quickly to assimilate the new girl. “Speaking of suicide prevention, do you have a boyfriend, Lily?” she asks, within moments of their first meeting.
So far, so Heathers. Except Damsels in Distress, while sharing a pastel and pop art sheen with Lehman’s classic, is firmly not in this mould. Stillman’s heroines aren’t part of the system; they are very much in opposition to it, albeit favouring a less orthodox rebellion. Confusion arrives, inevitably, from a trio of boys – potential suitors and ‘doofi’: Xavier, a French pseud with his own ‘specialised’ take on dating rituals (a subplot that has been trimmed in this ‘12’ rated version), charismatic ‘playboy operator’ Charlie (Adam Brody), and frat dunce Frank (a hilarious Ryan Metcalf),
For those who demand McKee type narratives and rigorous structure (the ‘journey’) this will be a very long 97 minutes. Damsels is a blancmange-light comedy which is amusing rather than hilarious, has a semi-musical vibe (but only one dance number), bears almost no relation to anyone’s college years or experiences (other than those that play out in Stillman’s head) and, on the surface, makes Gossip Girl look like the work of Brett Easton Ellis.
At times the film is so slight and inconsequential it threatens to float away. Fortunately the talented and charismatic cast hold attention throughout. Gerwig is probably the most intriguing young actor in Hollywood today. Simultaneously graceful and ungainly, her facial expression a permanent question mark, she is a beguiling presence. OC hottie Adam Brody finally lands a film that uses his charm reserves and his scenes with both leads are a delight to watch, particularly in the films standout moment – an ensemble dance number performed to George and Ira Gershwin’s “Things Are Looking Up”. All the young cast do fine and funny work, even though the shapeless narrative leaves them a little adrift from time to time.
Stillman has never been a plot man. His films Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days Of Disco (1998) are built around philosophical concepts, conceits, ideas and talk of the cleverest kind. The characters in his films are beautiful, gilded and privileged. But rather than chide or ridicule them, Stillman treats them with kindness and affection – allowing them to be awful, buffoonish and human but still likeable. In another. more aggressively plotted movie, Violet would be a Stepford Wives style megabitch, a character to be punished and held out to dry. Stillman though evidently loves Violet, and her cheery, heartfelt, eccentric optimism. I have to say that by the end, I did too.
Stillman started out at a time when American indie cinema seemed a lot less structured and preconceived (even if it wasn’t), and felt less like a run-through for the big time (even when it was). It was the time of Hal Hartley not Little Miss Sunshine. And, even then, this director was out of step, gloriously so. Lazily compared to Woody Allen, his style has been taken forward by directors like Wes Anderson (who is a lot more distanced and obvious) and Todd Solondz (who treats almost all of his characters with utter contempt). Stillman’s films are a hard sell but they can be pleasurable, knowing and rewarding. His social satire is shaded and delicate (and heavily reliant on audiences being wise to the references). He’s not ashamed to be clever.
Precious, gently witty and taking its cues from Wodehouse rather than Woody, Damsels will delight believers and distress the haters equally. I suspect you’ll know where you stand already.