[ed note: reposted from Ology.com, where it originally appeared, and which no longer exists]
“Nobody talks in real life the way they do in your novels,” the psychologist William James once said to his novelist brother Henry, who promptly responded, “Perhaps they should.”
Nobody in real life talks as they do in Whit Stillman’s world, either, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone to make James’ recommendation that they should. If that seems an overly literary reference for Damsels in Distress, a light collegiate comedy, you’ve never seen a Whit Stillman movie: in his debut Metropolitan, a tightly-wound satire of UES preppies, two characters have a sustained argument over Lionel Trilling’s reading of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. This is Stillman’s level, and at his best his movies are whimsically cerebral.
Damsels in Distress, unfortunately, is neither. The film is set at the fictional-but-steretypical Seven Oaks College, somewhere on the eastern seaboard, and follows Violet (Greta Gerwig), a Miss Manners throwback who finds the smell of frat boys insufferable, treats depressed students at the Suicide Prevention Center with tap dancing, and berates the sanctimonious editor of the school paper for his faux-rebelliousness.
Violet has an entourage, though it’s never clear why they follow her. This entourage, as cliques in Heathers-style movies will do, picks a new member from the incoming class, though it’s never clear why they need a new member or why they pick Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a lithe, innocent transfer student whose primary skill is being skinny. Lily thinks she’s found that eccentric group of friends that college has always promised, but soon finds they’re more constricting than interesting, and longs to escape their retrograde morality.
Some quality friction could arise from such a premise, but Stillman is entirely uninterested in developing it, as he seems uninterested in developing any narrative arc whatsoever. Pacing and tone have never been Stillman’s strong suit, but he seems especially unsure of himself in this film, which seemed to have been more conceptualized than written.
Violet, for instance, would be an intriguing character, if she were a character at all. Instead, she’s more an assemblage of Stillman’s kooky ideas, some of which cohere, many of which don’t. She’s obsessed with proper conduct, yet her goal in life is to start a dance craze, more the aim of a reference-heavy hipster in an American Apparel hoodie than a woman besotted by vestigial morals and wrapped in vintage dresses. We find out (there’s no spoiler alert here) that her name’s not Violet, and her personality has been constructed in response to an obsessive-compulsive disorder. But what could have been an interesting disquisition on the artificiality of moral codes—to what degree is our conception of right and wrong formed by our desires for our own selves?—is dropped before it’s started. Rather, we get a plot resolution involving a bar of soap that seems almost insultingly frivolous.
Violet’s patronization carries so far as to not so much infect as comprise her emotions: she dates a dullard named Frank solely because he’s a dullard and she wants to help him, though she’s never in fact shown to do so. This relationship forms a prime part of the film, but it makes no sense: Violet claims, over and over again, that she’s in love with Frank, but we never see a single meaningful moment of them together, and he continually exchanges her for her hot friends with no repercussions. I tried putting it all together, to fill in the commentary that Stillman wanted me to get from this, before giving up: Gerwig’s character is an entirely intellectual construct, made up of boutique moral choices, not personal ones, and by an hour into the film you no longer care what happens to her, or even understand it.
In fact, by an hour into the film, it’s fallen apart altogether. Entire scenes in this movie seem out of place, not as in morally anachronistic, but as if they were literally edited in the wrong order. Characters act one way in one scene, another way in the next. The girls exchange lovers not out of the confusions and paradoxes of desire—as in The Importance of Being Earnest, which this film clearly aspires to be—but in response to some off-screen logic, to the point that who’s dating whom seems arbitrary. Nobody maintains an emotion for longer than scene; anybody who feels hurt or betrayed gets over it in time for the next comedy piece. Lily and Violet begin a discussion that should form the emotional climax of the film, but it is interrupted after two lines by a running gag of a frat boy who’s so dumb he doesn’t know his colors; when we next see Lily and Violet, they’ve resolved their issues, whatever they were. Actually, we get more of the frat boy who doesn’t understand his colors than we do of any of the main emotional storylines, which tells you everything you need to know about the haphazard and confused approach Stillman brought to his first film in fourteen years.
If there is any reason to sit through Damsels In Distress, it’s Stillman’s rapid, self-aware dialogue, which hints of the smart complexity this movie could have attained. Alas, dialogue can only be as good as the film around it, and Stillman’s erratic approach to his craft often means his lines are left hanging pithily in the ether. In Metropolitan, Taylor Nichols’ constant intellectual digressions were obnoxiously pedantic, but they introduced a defense of the bourgeois as standard bearers of Western tradition, the exact effect that was operating on the film’s proletarian protagonist. In short, the dialogue wasn’t just knowing and twee, but served thematic purpose; nobody, in fact, talks like Nichols’ character, but his point was perhaps they should. But in Damsels In Distress, there is no thematic purpose, and all the sharp Stillman-esque rejoinders in the world can’t recommend it.