Whit Stillman is back. The writer-director of Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco was thought to have retired, his career having not stirred since 1999. But no. Apparently he's just been writing scripts that no-one would fund. Until this one.
Damsels in Distress is a college comedy about a group of girls all named after flowers who spot vulnerable new additions to the roster and try to help them, through their Suicide Prevention Centre ("They say with illness, prevention is nine-tenths the cure. With suicide, it's actually ten-tenths.") There's no counselling or medication, just free doughnuts, unlicensed aromatherapy and tap dancing. This being college, and this being Stillman, plenty of the story also regards romantic entanglements with frat boys, a "playboy-or-operator-type" and a Spanish religious zealot.
The film is brimming over with that unique, hilarious Stillman dialogue we've been missing for the last 13 years: cool people "lacking humanity", confusion over the spelling of the name "Zorro", and references to a time before anyone "started being nice to weird and unpopular kids". He's a wildly subversive writer, with a distinctive and fiercely individual viewpoint, seeing everything from a fresh angle. In Metropolitan his characters criticised "public transport snobs" who wouldn't take taxis, called socialist philosophers "patronising" and pontificated on the discreet, oft-overlooked charm of the bourgeoisie. In Barcelona, the virtues and vices of American imperialism were dissected in typically offbeat fashion. And in The Last Days of Disco, Stillman suggested the death of Bambi's mother was a formative incident for an entire generation that consequently embraced animal rights. It makes you think that Stillman would make one hell of an essayist. He's certainly one hell of a filmmaker. Here he offers an absurdist take on pushy parents and laments the degeneration of homosexual culture, from Wilde to macho posturing.
As always, he gives his characters absurd, unforgettable back stories. In the past we've had a supposedly gifted student fail a crucial exam because a girl kept snapping her bra strap, and the tragic tale of Polly Perkins, which shed light on the many wrongdoings of Metropolitan's heinous Rick von Sloneker. Here there are several, including those of queen bee Violet (Greta Gerwig), slickster Charlie and the blank-faced Thor, who's going to "hit the books really hard" in order to learn his colours. Stillman makes much in his films of affectations and the projected image and there are big lies again here, as Stillman returns to his favourite theme: the search for identity and a purpose in life. These are characters in flux: they change and solidify before our eyes. And then, quite often, they pair off.
It's hard to describe the plot. Really it's the antithesis of formula filmmaking: novelistic and unpredictable, with constant diversions and twists you can't anticipate, as in real life. And in a sense it is like real life, only with better dialogue and a taste for the fantastical. Stillman has always had a delightfully unselfconscious fondness for dancing. His films have had limbo competitions, "bible-dancing", a formal dance and an entire film based around disco, with a climax set to Love Train, in which people shimmy along a train carriage. In Damsels, all Gerwig wants to do in life is help people and start an international dance craze. Her unskilled jaunt down a dorm room corridor is a highlight, before the film passes into genuine musical territory, exploding into an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza for its closing five minutes. Fittingly, the number Stillman chooses, Things Are Looking Up, is one of the loveliest from A Damsel in Distress - the 1937 Fred Astaire film. Leaping into musical territory is a filmic trick that can go very badly wrong, but it's done with such sincerity and such a genuine love for the genre that it's a move of complete inspiration.
The cast is largely excellent. Gerwig was a heroine of the "Mumblecore" genre before her break-out performance opposite Ben Stiller in Greenberg. Speaking in that curious way common to all the director's central characters and asked to essentially carry the film in an extremely tricky part, she's absolutely magnetic: juggling conflicting, contrasting character traits from one moment to the next, as her character variously finds and loses herself, helps and hinders others and may be either a life-saver or a joke. Analeigh Tipton plays Lily, who, as a new addition to the group, is forced to wrestle with their peculiarities, whilst negotiating a love life that sees her periodically deceived, confused and asked to have sex in an uncomfortable way. It's another busy part and she's fine in it. It took me a little while to acclimatise to the English Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), but she, erm, grew on me increasingly throughout the movie. The fourth member of the group, Heather (Carrie MacLemore), a principle-light dummy, seems a strangely conventional part, at least on first viewing, but MacLemore tackles it with gusto.
The performances from the men aren't as uniformly strong. Adam Brody is good as strategic developer Charlie, and Billy Magnussen makes an amusing idiot, but Ryan Metcalf as the blue-eyed, fairly unattractive, fairly unintelligent Frank is a touch inconsistent, and Hugo Becker isn't great as Lily's unconventional Latin lover. Perhaps the best of the bunch is Zach Woods in a cinematic first: the Chris Eigeman character not played by Chris Eigeman.
I like Whit Stillman more than any other modern filmmaker: for his glorious dialogue, challenging, surprising worldview and superbly-drawn characters. On a first viewing, Damsels is a worthy addition to the canon, with the slightly underwhelming digital visuals quickly forgotten thanks to an engrossing, meandering story, superb work from Gerwig and a script that has more great lines than anything I've seen so far this decade. But who watches Whit Stillman films just once? Barbarians, that's who. It's only repeat viewings that will reveal the precise depths of Damsels' myriad charms.
(Even longer review is on the blog.)