This is the fourth film from director Whit Stillman. It did well financially, and revived Stillman’s career, but got mixed reviews. I enjoyed it, although it reminded me of a young person learning to drive: a slow unsteady start and an abrupt finish.
Although it presents young men in all their amusing boorishness, this is not a film of gender conflict. The young women are presented as somewhat vapid and very feminine. It is so common today to see young women portrayed in American TV and movies as Amazons, that it is refreshing simply to see girls being girls. The scenes with the women running like girls were a pleasant change. For once a woman was shown in something other than a pantsuit, and not brandishing some phallic weapon.
I found Greta Gerwig effective in the role, and she carried the film well. Stillman is really witty in this screenplay, and there is a depth to his thinking that made this film especially mature.
Stillman touches on some old themes here. Fertility and religion. God, Catholicism, Catharism and the biblical command to go forth and multiply are all in the mix. As in Metropolitan, but more clearly, the delicate question of how exactly the next generation is to be engendered is dwelt on. It can be no accident that his Lily character experiments with Cathar (anal) sex at the instigation of her boyfriend, as the apotheosis of sterile sex, after Violet (Greta Gerwig) has earlier stressed the importance of procreation. The movie clearly points the moral that the path of sterility is to be avoided (and it is possible to see a fairly explicit condemnation of homosexuality in the story, especially as Lily has it shoved in her face that homosexuals do the same thing, although her boyfriend claims some illusory difference.) In the event, her French “Cathar” boyfriend swears off Catharism himself.
As in previous films, Stillman flirts with the old enemy of Catharism, Catholicism, which he evidently eyes with a wary respect.
On the whole, I found the quirks in the film endearing. And I rather like the moral, that a new dance craze adds more to human happiness than, say, a career in law. One thinks of Brillat-Savarin’s remark: “The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity, than the discovery of a new star.”
It is unfortunate that what we see of the new putative dance craze is unoriginal and really just more of the same. Perhaps there is a subtle nod to tradition there. It is obvious that Stillman is having holiday fun at the end of his film, with the sweet but ridiculous dancing redolent of old musicals, prior to the introduction of the “new craze” dance, the Sambola. And there, with much use of arch screen titles and the like, the movie abruptly ends.
Stillman clearly knows his way around depression, having admitted to suffering from it a bit himself, and the film is really a reflection on depression and how to lift one’s spirits in a healthy way. After the failure of his last film, he must have been under a lot of pressure, and he kept us all waiting with this film. Despite that, the latest film is impressively light and bright. And I don’t just mean like a “smiling depressive”, but genuinely full of unforced pleasure. It is an impressive personal achievement for Stillman.
There are things I would pick apart. There is a likeable parody of “clit lit” in a course nicknamed “flit lit”, with flit being a slang term for homosexual. The course is meant to be on the literature of the dandy. The authors under consideration include Pope, Peacock, Firbank and Waugh. But of course to be a dandy, even a literary dandy, is not necessarily to be a homosexual. Off the top of my head, Pope was no homosexual (nor a dandy) and Waugh might have had some homosexual phases, but he was basically a heterosexual.
A moment I enjoyed a lot was a cameo appearance by Taylor Nichols (the philosophical young man in Metropolitan, Charlie Black) as Professor Black in Damsels in Distress. Apparently Charlie grew up and got a job teaching at a good college.
I was less gratified by another cameo, by actress Carolyn Farina, who was pretty ingenue Audrey Rouget in Metropolitan. She has a few seconds on screen in Stillman’s Last Days of Disco, but no lines. Audrey had apparently gone on to do well in publishing in that film. In contrast, in Damsels in Distress, Farina does not appear as Audrey but as a waitress (identified in the credits as “Carolina Antonucci”). Carolyn Farina has a few lines in this latest film. I was interested to see her performance. On the whole I found it competent enough, with her accent perhaps closer to her real-life sound, although I am no expert on American accents. She looks good for 47 …
Carolyn Farina in Stillman’s first film, Metropolitan:
Carolyn Farina in Stillman’s fourth film, Damsels in Distress:
I have written on films here before, especially on Whit Stillman, and most especially on Carolyn Farina and her career.
In particular, this post is the third in a series on the sexual politics of films, the others being: