Rating: 4.5/5A great amount of expectation has built up in the years leading up to Whit Stillman’s latest film Damsels in Distress, following an absence that lasted more than a decade. In the 1990s, Stillman wrote, directed, and produced a sterling trio of witty comedies and earned himself a significant cult following. Naturally, fans will want to know if Damsels follows suit. Damsels is unmistakably a Stillman film through and through, but one that departs from those earlier efforts in stunning, charming and ultimately endearing ways. Stillman characters have always tended to speak with a signature vocabulary, tone and rhythm that tended to heighten the artificiality of their dialogue while at the same time giving the illusion of verisimilitude, because as stilted and awkward as their manner of speaking sometimes was, it nonetheless seemed true to life within their milieu. This distinctive blend of artifice and vérité realism (nowhere more apparent than in the near-ethnographic exercise that was Stillman’s debut feature, Metropolitan) works to cleverly mask Stillman’s sleight of hand in Damsels, which is easily his least naturalistic film. Longtime Stillman fans and newcomers alike will find themselves adapting to the unique and peculiar world created in Damsels, a challenging but refreshingly unique film that signals the grand return of a major American filmmaker.
The oddness of Damsels becomes apparently only gradually, steadily curling around the seemingly normal-looking college campus that functions as the film’s setting. A transfer student named Lily (Analeigh Tipton) is welcomed into a group of fellow female students, headed by the thoroughly eccentric Violet (Greta Gerwig), and it is around this quartet (the so-called “damsels”) that the film develops. They move about campus like an atomic structure, bound loosely together and pulling other characters into their orbit. Lily’s relative normalcy, making her an obvious point of identification for viewers, is contrasted with the individual idiosyncrasies of Violet, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), who behave as though they’ve stepped out of a screwball comedy. These idiosyncrasies go beyond merely shading in characters to give them depth, as they functioned in previous Stillman films (think of the comical obsession Chris Eigeman’s character has with proper shaving in Barcelona), and become bizarre mantras (such as Rose’s compulsive repetition of the phrase “playboy, operator type” to suspiciously describe a certain class of men). These characters seem like elaborately designed, handmade wind-up toys, each playing out a zany series of behaviors that come to define not only who they are as individuals but also their broader role in society.
The trio of Violet, Rose and Heather seem delightfully off-kilter from the very beginning, but other characters reveal a more profound strangeness at the core of Damsels. For instance, there is Thor (Billy Magnussen), an oafish frat boy who, in a blatantly improbable manner, does not know how to distinguish colors. This aspect of Thor stretches our imagination but also points to the fact that Stillman has abandoned his commitment to naturalism. Indeed, Damsels often approaches the dreamlike. But this unreal texture serves a distinct purpose, fashioning an idealized world out of motley parts. Men like Thor or his fellow frat boy Frank (Ryan Metcalf), Violet’s unlikely boyfriend at the start of the film, are the type of characters one might expect Stillman’s sharp wit to easily skewer, but instead, they are elegantly woven into Damsel’s world, becoming essential components. Where Barcelona gently goofed on the ignorant pretensions of its Spaniards (who mistakenly call the AFL-CIO by the name AFL-CIA), Damsels finds Stillman seemingly intent on fulfilling his vision of an all-embracing community. In explaining why she chose to date the dim-witted, charmless Frank, for instance, Violet uses the language of charity, but in Stillman’s and Gerwig’s masterful hands, we would never doubt Violet’s sincerity.
We can trust Stillman’s sincerity too, and in some scenes, this sincerity raises the film up triumphantly. Thor’s redemptive moment, having finally learned the colors, occurs underneath the calm glow of a rainbow, the colors of which Thor adeptly names. Where Stillman’s earlier works possessed a sharp, cutting wit, Damsels is soft, not so much dull as it is purely benevolent. It may seem that Stillman has also become more inclusive—Damsels prominently features two black actors (Echikunwoke and Jermaine Crawford, better known as Dukie from “The Wire”) and one scene uncharacteristically but prominently features country-western line dancing—but this was always the case with Stillman, one of the most generous and welcoming of contemporary American filmmakers, virtually never seeming malicious. Most audiences just never realized this because of their own fixations on the white, well-to-do milieu Stillman often examines.
With Damsels, Stillman reveals new aspects of his sensibility, at the core of which, embodying Stillman’s benevolence, is Violet, and Gerwig’s full-bodied performance makes Violet both undeniably a Stillman creation and also a unique individual all her own. Violet’s whimsical goal in life is to invent a dance craze. Gerwig’s immense faith in this role redeems what might seem silly (an ever-present liability with Damsels) and makes even a scene in which she rhapsodizes on the precise scent of a soap bar feel important and sweet, especially when she passes around the bar to strangers at a diner to share her epiphanic olfactory moment. What we learn about Violet’s darker past, as well as her tireless work at the local suicide prevention center, underscore that her outlandish quest in life is not in the least bit trivial, and Stillman’s success can be measured precisely in the way we come to feel the tremendous importance of inventing a dance craze (perhaps against our own better judgment). As Damsels slides discreetly into its musical finale, Stillman gracefully waves goodbye to straightforward naturalistic realism, perhaps for good. He offers instead his own fully realized world, slight and quaint maybe but impossible to forget, and he does this with the grace and elegance of a master.