Writer-director Whit Stillman, one-of-a-kind chronicler of hyper-articulate and hopelessly bourgeoisie white folks, was last glimpsed in 1998 when his The Last Days Of Disco closed with a cheerfully surreal dance number—an entire subway car and homeless people on the platform bouncing about in time with the O’Jays “Love Train” in a moment as lovely as it was buoyant and fleeting.
After spending more than a decade lost in the independent financing wilderness, Stillman returns with Damsels in Distress , an over-stylized, sometimes borderline incoherent ode to youthful folly that likewise closes with an infectious musical number. The now 60-year-old auteur hasn’t really progressed much over time—his filmmaking has gotten even sloppier and his subjects are younger than ever. But Stillman still regards these kooky kids with uncommon generosity, and this goofy, disjointed picture casts a weird spell, if you are willing to let it.
Borrowing some of the structure from Stillman’s still-great 1990 debut Metropolitan, Damsels begins with newbie Lily (Analeigh Tipton) transferring to the fictional Seven Oaks college campus during the fall of her junior year. A la the previous picture, she’s abruptly, and somewhat inadvertently, inducted into the in-crowd almost by mistake, welcomed with overzealous fervor by ringleader Violet (indie It Girl Greta Gerwig.)
Violet is, putting it politely, a corker. In a weird inversion of Mean Girls, Gerwig’s screwball charges forth with a gaggle of sycophantic followers, all of whom are not un-ostentatiously named after flowers. They run the campus’ Suicide Prevention Center, where the “Prevention” part of the sign keeps falling to the ground at pricelessly timed intervals. These gals are gassed up on the ego-centric satisfaction of charity in action, even though Violet’s increasingly clueless mental-health notions presume there isn’t any psychological problem that cannot be resolved by free doughnuts, scented soaps and a vigorous round of tap dancing.
She’s a bit of a hoofing fool, subscribing to a weirdo utopian ideal that there is no more noble goal than to engineer an “international dance craze.” Citing Richard Strauss, Mr. Charleston and one “Chubert” Checker as history’s greatest humanitarians, daffy Violet only longs to bring people together. She’s even got a soft spot in her heart for the college’s dreaded “Roman letter societies”—dopey frat houses stuffed silly with dim-witted but handsome boys. Avowed enemies of the school newspaper editors, as well as those who do their homework, this buffoonish crew wallows in blissful ignorance.
But Violet has slightly ulterior motives for defending the dunces. She’s madly in love with one of these dopes, saying that she tends to prefer unattractive men who aren’t particularly bright, because such a situation is infinitely less threatening. But heartbreak is still heartbreak, no matter how low you set your standards. Our heroine’s ensuing depression (she “prefers to call it a tailspin”) is going to require more sweet-smelling soaps and fancy footwork than was perhaps originally anticipated.
Damsels in Distress is often chaotic, photographed with bizarre accents on candy colors, glowing, un-natural side-lighting and seemingly edited with a meat cleaver. Stillman has never lost his weird propensity for abruptly fading out of a scene in mid-conversation, with awkward title cards goosing along the passage of time. Lacking a third act altogether, the movie leaps mid-conflict into happily-ever-after territory, a structural shambles.
And yet I still loved it, sometimes not just in spite of its flaws but because of them. This is one fine mess of a movie, lurching here and there with nothing but affection and affectation. No, not all of the jokes stick. There’s a particular anal sex gag that is so politely circumvented by the screenplay that you’ll spend half the picture wondering if that’s indeed what everybody was actually talking about. Stillman’s curlicues of verbiage sometimes end up spinning themselves out into dead ends, which is a small price to pay for the effervescent highs that arrive when he’s firing on all cylinders. Gerwig at first seems to have a hard time wrapping her breathy delivery around his staccato monologues, but her slightly addled, dizzy rhythms eventually take hold and the performance becomes something close to radiance.
Damsels in Distress operates on a strange wavelength. My favorite character is Thor, a numbskull frat boy who we later learn was bumped ahead in school at a young age, skipping kindergarten so his parents could claim bragging rights about their child prodigy. As an unfortunate consequence, Thor can’t even tell you the colors of the rainbow. “But that’s what college is for,” he advises. “I’m learning things, and the next time you see me I’ll be smarter than I am right now.”
It’s a sweet notion. One that can rest alongside the idea that “an international dance craze” might cure suicidal depression, in the lovely naiveté of bull-headed youth that Damsels in Distress so haphazardly conjures.
He wrote pilots that never got made. And he wrote his own scripts, so many that he now has a stockpile. “That’s the silver lining of what was in certain ways a bleak experience."