Out of the Past: Damsels in Distress

Film Festivals, FILM
At the World Cinema Showcase, Whit Stillman makes a comeback—but after 14 years, has his cinema of propriety and verbal wit aged well?

What ever happened to Chris Eigeman?” was the question posed before our screening of Damsels in Distress, to which some lousy midday sitcom was cited, along with the underworked actor’s turn in hyper-articulate dramedy Gilmore Girls—a predominately white, preppy, hermitically sealed TV universe not too dissimilar from the realm Whit Stillman’s creatures of privilege have inhabited since his 1990 debut, the crisply conceived Metropolitan. While Eigeman, a Stillman regular, does not feature in this latest film (although he appears to have been cloned—see Zach Woods as the conceited editor of campus newspaper “The Daily Complainer”), the topic of his whereabouts proved to be oddly coincidental. With its leafy East Coast surroundings and decent, quaintly mature characters, it’s at once a blessing and a curse that Damsels in Distress resembles an extended episode of Gilmore Girls (specifically, the latter “Yale years”): both film and TV show sharing not only a charming nobility, but a precarious remove from reality that could easily be perceived as out-of-touch, or worse, supercilious.

Depicting the college days of four attractive, earnestly virtuous women preoccupied with boy trouble, suicide prevention, and the betterment of campus life, Damsels in Distress remains prone to such criticisms, despite being comfortable within its own skin. Or perhaps because of: while not as snobbish or smugly intellectual as previous efforts (14 years have passed since the director’s last outing, The Last Days of Disco), films of Damsel’s self-satisfaction make for an easy target in the sights of quick-fire critics, eager to shoot down the beautiful and the affluent, or the excessive navel gazing and self-analysis that often go hand-in-hand. Those wary of snap judgments though will be delighted to discover a Stillman film that’s warmer than usual, softer in tone, and crucially, self-aware of its own implausibility. It’s also important to remember that his cinema has always been conscious of the present, constantly returning to virtues of the past in times when they longer matter (and are effortlessly ridiculed), but are nonetheless worth holding onto. So says Adam Brody’s playboy/operator-type, whose reasoning for his thesis on the decline of decadence is, “the past is gone, so we might as well romanticize it.”

This, to clarify, is an entirely different mindset from the sentiments expressed by Owen Wilson’s daydreamer in Woody Allen’s staid Midnight in Paris: whereas a delusional Gil believes he belongs in another era, because he does not fit into the one he was born into, Stillman’s protagonists simply root themselves to tradition as best they can in less civilized times. They may be well bred, highbrow, and incongruously genteel, but they do have something to offer in a climate where the prevailing screen image of university toggles between frat boy sex romp and Ivy League prologue to world domination. Guided by their natural leader, the singular yet deeply conservative Violet (Greta Gerwig, another piece of déjà vu casting given her likeness to Chloe Sevigny), the damsels’ ambitions are strictly altruistic, far from the capitalist conquests hatched in the dorm rooms of The Social Network. In addition to counseling suicidal students, the girl gang dedicate themselves to popularizing the Sambola (along with bouts of tap and line-dancing): the arrival of dance a welcome, buoyant signifier that this is indeed a Whit Stillman film.

Less familiar is the clumsy introduction of broad comedy in the form of “doufi” (the “nonstandard, but preferred” spelling” when pluralizing “doofus”): a fraternity of morons, douche bags, and numbskulls, who the girls take pity on (in the same way Sandra Bullock takes pity on a hopeless teenage charity case in The Blind Side), all the while under the illusion that they’re improving the lives and social stratum of these lost causes by dating them in earnest. The interactions Stillman scripts between his cultivated female protagonists and the grunting collegiate cave men are inevitably amusing—taken to the extreme, one frat boy is revealed to have never learnt his colours—and yet they’re also kind of lazy in their comic relief, or at least not in keeping with the sophistication of humour we’ve come to expect. This aside, Stillman’s writing is as sharp as before; the prim dialogue and impeccable syntax as distinct as ever. Scholarly references are again conspicuous in their idiosyncrasy, as is Stillman’s uneasy (and perhaps, unfair) custom of miring female characters in improper sexual relations—previously, it was a regrettable one-night stand with consequences in The Last Days of Disco; here, a reluctant encounter with the “non-procreative” (read: anal) sexual preference of the ancient Catharian faith.

The long lay-off between projects hasn’t aged every aspect of Stillman’s filmmaking as well as one might hope: more than a decade on, his latest work exudes a wonderfully anachronistic quality in both sensibility and text, however continues to lack an obvious refinement in visual style and, at times, scene direction. (Witness, for instance, the film’s shaky start, a decidedly off-key opening exchange between actors still getting to grips with the specificity of Stillman’s dialogue—thankfully remedied soon thereafter.) Elsewhere, to Stillman’s credit, he has addressed the glaring absence of diversity that once devalued his films in some eyes: black characters and black faces now factor in the scheme of things, albeit inserted with a touch of self-consciousness. Most surprising of all, though, is the sense of fun that permeates throughout this bright, aromatic film: the social sphere it locates itself within is still a polite, obedient place, yet one not nearly as serious or conformist, and somehow liberated by its characters’ flights of frivolity. These are characters that also fittingly date back to the debutants of Stillman’s best film, Metropolitan: young people who don’t know better—not yet anyway—and thus can be forgiven for their naivety and idealism. And in the final analysis, it’s hard to deny a film that so joyously retreads the steps of George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘Things Are Looking Up’ as performed by Fred Astaire and an endearingly ungainly Joan Fontaine in A Damsel in Distress—the 1937 film Stillman’s creation pays affectionate homage to, and incidentally, one of my favourite musicals of all-time.

The World Cinema Showcase 2012 graces the following cities this autumn: Auckland, Rialto Newmarket/Bridgeway Cinemas, March 29-April 11; Wellington, Paramount, April 5-22; Dunedin, Regent Theatre, April 19-May 2; Christchurch, Hollywood Cinema, April 26-May 9. Full programme and schedule details at worldcinemashowcase.co.nz.