So many peculiar and archaic sights in Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress, yet I keep thinking about the artichokes. They sit steaming in a kitchen pot as a trio of undergraduates at Seven Oaks College prepare an off-campus dinner; sophomore transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) admits that she's never seen one of these vegetables before. Her friends don't believe her: Of course she's seen an artichoke! But she insists she hasn't. And there the vignette ends, with the camera lingering over the three green hearts simmering, fading out slowly, as if considering some small but sacred mystery.
I can only imagine how foreign Damsels in Distress must seem to someone who has never seen a Whit Stillman film before. For those of us who count his three previous movies—Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco—as rare treasures, for we faithful who have kept vigil 13 years for another completed work, the movie is both an advent and an inevitable letdown. (Nothing could be so good as what we've imagined.) For the uninitiated, it must seem as baffling a world as anything in John Carter. Here is a movie about the mating habits of arrogant, mildly deranged dandies who talk like they stepped out of a Fitzgerald novella and care about nothing so much as starting a ballroom dance craze. Who are these persnickety loons?
Maybe it would help to recall one of the funnier quips from Barcelona: "I wasn't using 'prig'
pejoratively." Stillman has always made movies about repressed snobs. He just doesn't think being a repressed snob is such a bad thing. In Damsels, Adam Brody (playing what Stillman aficionados will recognize as the "Chris Eigeman role") delivers a fairly impassioned speech about how homosexuality was classier when it was closeted and rarefied. This might be offensive if Stillman wasn't also making a larger case for conformity. This is his college movie, and it is an explicit rejoinder to Animal House.
So the movie looks at the world through the gauzy, sun-dappled view of Lily and her three roommates—especially Violet (Greta Gerwig), who runs the campus suicide prevention center, where the suggested treatments are perfume, tap dance, doughnuts and coffee, though wily symptom-fakers perpetually have designs on the doughnuts. The movie is so madcap and mannered, and Gerwig's performance so perfectly balanced on the edge of mania, that people might read it as a satire. But anybody who's spent time in the cloistered world of a small, hidebound liberal arts school will recognize it as only a slight exaggeration, even down to the creepy French guy who says he prefers anal sex for religious reasons. Stillman is having a laugh at this bizarro world—where the goody two-shoes are heroes, counterculture activists are conceited scoundrels, and frat boys are the hapless, filthy ditwits stuck in between—but he's also advocating for an ideal of feminine civilization. It's no accident that the movie ends with an instructional video for that new ballroom dance. (Itâs called âthe Sambola!â)
But if Damsels in Distress is the Stillman movie most out of step with the modern world (sometimes gratingly so, especially when the whimsy levels rise to join Wes Anderson in the twees), it's also about the difficulty of achieving anything like normality, and the honor in trying. Most of us emerge into society with huge blind spots, and we have to learn the basics of decent behavior through trial and error. On Stillman's looking-glass campus, that victory is represented in tasting an artichoke—or in the herculean effort of a fraternity member named Thor (Billy Magnussen), who never learned colors, and with great difficulty learns to recognize a rainbow. That farcical battle is perversely touching, but of course it also proves Whit Stillman can never be normal. He's too good.
SEE IT: Damsels in Distress is rated PG-13. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.