damsels in distress

I’m not sure if you knew this, but not everyone likes Whit Stillman.

Which is understandable. His movies generally focus on a young, priveleged set of individuals – Manhattan debutantes and their escorts in Metropolitan, Americans abroad in Barcelona and 80’s yuppies partying at Studio 54 in The Last Days of Disco – and that is not a set of individuals that everyone much likes. Unlike many directors, Whit Stillman tends to portray that patrician group in a positive light. One of the best lines in Metropolitan is when one of the characters remarks that he’d gone to see The Discrete Charms of the Bourgeoisie and found that the bourgeoisie were not portrayed as charming at all. Perhaps the rarity of that charming portrayal is why everyone who has ever attended a debutante ball grasps desperately on to Metropolitan, as if, if they could only force people to watch it, everyone would see that they’re really quite pleasant.

And certainly not everyone will like Whit Stillman’s new movie, Damsels in Distress. It follows a trio of preppily dressed girls, led by Violet (Greta Gerwig) attending a small liberal arts college. They  are committed to preventing suicide and despair by making things smell better, and Violet plans to start an “international dance craze” (she also teaches tap dancing to the clinically depressed). They’re joined by an outsider, Lily (Analeigh Tipton) who originally seems poised to be the heroine of the movie, and who expresses her desire to be one of the “normal people” necessary for the world to function well. However, as Violet’s behavior becomes more erratic, and as she’s revealed to be something of an impostor, she becomes so endearing that you can’t help but think that the world really needs beautifully crazy people.

There’s also a scene where they all dance on water. Just like they’re in 1952.

Oh God, I loved it so much.

But! But there are plenty of scenes to object to, perhaps most notably the one where one of the male characters declares “Before, homosexuality was something refined, hidden, subliminated, aspiring to the highest forms of expression and often achieving them. Now it just seems to be a lot of muscle-bound morons running around in T-shirts.”

To which you might, and probably should, reply that it would have been pretty hard to be elegant in Reading Gaol. People who dislike Whit Stillman will notice lines like that and point out that they are very privileged, and frankly, very wrong. And they will not be incorrect. You could also make a point that distributing soap and tap shoes is probably not the most effective way to stop people from committing suicide.

Though the most frequent criticism I heard of the movie (I lingered in the lobby, I lingered, clutching my little complimentary bar of soap) was “well, nobody behaves like that. Those characters have no resemblance to real people.”

It’s impossible to imagine that young people in college are hyper literary and start dance crazes? That’s silly. Of course they do. All kinds of ridiculous colleges exist where this sort of thing still happens. I went to a ridiculous liberal arts college where that still happens.

For reference: here is a picture from when I escorted someone onto the croquet field for our school’s annual match, which was followed by a waltz. Not one of the bi-weekly waltzes. A bigger one, with champagne and strawberries and live music. I was on the waltz committee. Ashley mostly stood on the quad and smoked cigarettes for four years. Everything else has changed – today I saw a man defecate on the subway and blithely thought “well, I suppose that’s one way to get a book deal” –  but Ashley, thank goodness, remains a still point in a turning world.

(Black and white dress, black and white hat:)

So. Whit Stillman’s movies aren’t unrealistic because they present a certain kind of existence where people dress up and dance a lot, and quote books endlessly. That happens. On a superficial level, some people do behave the way they do in Whit Stillman’s movies.

But then, I feel fairly strongly that the world Whit Stillman depicts is not the real world. However, that is not because no one wears sundresses and twinsets in the real world. It’s because, in the real world, generally no one behaves half as nicely as they do in Whit Stillman movies.

There’s a really good piece on Splitsider about Stillman’s audience that notes:

“The main male characters believe that they are hyperaware of the vulnerability of the girls, and strive to protect them at every turn. It’s slightly creepy, and one of the many reasons conservatives seem to rally around Stillman as though his films are their personal artistic medium.”

This is certainly true – in Damsels the male characters seem bizarrely attuned to the possibly predatory nature of other men – but then, everyone tries to protect everyone in Whit Stillman’s pieces (at least they do in Metropolitan and Damsels).

In Damsels strangers take note if their peers rooms have gone silent and rush to get help. When people reveal embarrassing personal facts about their last relationship at a bar, everyone responds gently and sympathetically. When Violet disappears from school for a few days following her break-up, the entire school runs through the fields looking for her (even the newspaper editor who doesn’t much like her). It’s later revealed that she politely left a note telling everyone where she was going.

And how Violet handles that break-up! After a fellow she was seeing cheats on her with a friend of her’s, there are none of the irate messages, rumor spreading or drunken phone calls that you might expect when you break up with just about anyone at 19. When the couple sees each other again – although it is clearly confirmed that the man in question is a jerk – they’re gentle with each other. It’s the way people break up in heaven.

And when characters are capable of behaving that well, they’d be unbearable if they weren’t flawed in some of their thinking. The fact that they have notions that are absurd – like pining for the bad old days of homosexuality, or thinking that you can save someone clinically depressed with a bar of soap – lets the viewer feel a little bit superior to them. It’s reassuring to be reminded that they are people, not angels.

The niceness of Whit Stillman’s movies seem to reside in the fact that the characters are constantly doing the best they can under the circumstances (the circumstances, largely, being that they are young and don’t yet know terribly much about terribly much).

It’s that, not the clothes and dancing, that seems to indicate that Whit Stillman’s newest film is a delicately rendered utopia. And it is so nice to go and spend two hours there. Because, you know, you leave, and you have to get on a subway again, and it smells pretty awful.