'Damsels in Distress': Whit Stillman's Charming, Useless Fantasyland

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The director's depiction of college life is more upbeat, and more unreal, than any of his past films.

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Sony Pictures Classics

All Whit Stillman movies are utopias. The writer-director admits as much. His first film, 1990's Metropolitan, offered an idealized vision of Manhattan debutante scene, a world of sparkling conversation, permissive parents, and chivalrous young men. Barcelona cast a similarly fanciful gloss on the American expat experience, as did The Last Days of Disco with post-collegiate life in New York City.

Darkness lurks in each of these films, though. In Metropolitan, there's the son who realizes his estranged father has cast out his childhood toys on the street. Barcelona has the Americans in Spain who must answer for their country's lousy international reputation. A woman in The Last Days of Disco gets a sexually transmitted disease after a one-night stand with a handsome lawyer. The world of Stillman's first three movies is stylized, but it's still the world.

His latest, Damsels in Distress—out this week, 13 years after Disco was released—is, in Stillman's words, the most utopian of all his efforts: "pure, full-on fantasy," as he put it at a recent screening of the film. He's right: Damsels is sunnier and more energetic than anything he's done before. But the film pays a price for its airiness: irrelevance.

Damsels' premise doesn't sound particularly cheery. It follows a group of young women at a Northeastern liberal arts college called Seven Oaks who make it their business to prevent fellow students from committing suicide. But this is no Girl, Interrupted. The suicide attempts at Seven Oaks are absurd, brought on by a painful breakup or existential despair at being an education major, and easily subverted: A doughnut or a bar of fresh-smelling soap is enough to make a formerly despondent student realize life is worth living.

The rest of the world of Damsels in Distress is even more fantastical. The women (all named after flowers—Violet, Heather, Lily, and Rose) wear perfectly fitting sundresses and the men wear ties. Students crowd a party dance floor but no one gets sweaty. There are no computers, and for the whole movie, I spotted just one cell phone. The characters keep their rooms immaculately clean. Only one woman seems to be having sex—strange, religiously informed anal sex with a French grad student. The movie ends with the characters singing and tap-dancing around campus, igniting a global dance craze called the Sambola.

The chaste dreaminess of Damsels in Distress is refreshing, especially when the typical Hollywood college fantasy skews in the opposite direction, to the glorified, unrepentant hedonism of movies like Old School, Van Wilder, and, of course, Animal House.

But those college movies aren't trying to be deep: They simply want to entertain the audience for an hour and a half. The same isn't true of Damsels. For all the movie's utopian elements, it's very clear that Stillman wants to say something about the world beyond the movie.

That desire is obvious at several points: When a character professes her desire to date intellectually dull men (they have more potential for self-improvement than smart ones); when a character is called out for being arrogant and responds, "Yes, of course. What's your point?" (the conclusion being, presumably, that arrogance is an unfairly maligned trait). But it's particularly clear toward the end of the film, in a scene where the film's heroine (the delightfully un-self-aware Violet, played by Greta Gerwig) is walking across campus with her foil (the snarly Lily, played by Analeigh Tipton). They're debating the virtues of conformity versus eccentricity, and Lily declares: "What the world needs to work properly is a large mass of normal people—I'd like to be one those."

We're meant to recoil from Lily's celebration of averageness and embrace Violet's "uniqueness, eccentricity, independence." But the message doesn't resonate. The movie is so set in its own fantasyland that the rules of this world don't seem to apply.

There's nothing wrong with a happy movie, of course. Stillman is right to reject the indie assumption that to be meaningful, a film has to be depressing. But it would have been nice to believe that some of the characters' tap-dancing joy could be realized beyond Seven Oaks.

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Eleanor Barkhorn is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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