The Sexual Politics of “Damsels in Distress”

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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:

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Carolyn Farina in Stillman’s fourth film, Damsels in Distress:

_CFold

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:

The Sexual Politics of “Metropolitan”.

The Sexual Politics of “Blade Runner”.

30 responses to this post.

  1. Fan-boy. 😉

    I’d compare Damsels with Barcelona, in that both were less weighty, fluffier flims than the other two, IMO. But I’d put Damsels on a lower level than all three previous ones, which somehow had more continuity in feel than this one did. For one thing, those were all in urban settings, whereas this was at a New England college, so somewhat different.

    Also, all the main characters were white, in the previous three movies; I don’t know why Stillman diverged from that pattern here, except perhaps feeling the need to pander to ‘inclusiveness’, doncha know. At least he didn’t make Rose a ‘magic Negro’ character; her fake British accent established her essential ‘whiteness’, culturally speaking.

    And I didn’t like that the focus was all-female this time, with the male characters basically at the periphery. Again, a sop to modern entertainment industry tropes…

    Basically, the focus on class in the other three was more muted here, which I found unfortunate.

    I was amused by how all four girls – Violet, Heather, Rose, and Lily – had flower names. Highlights the frivolity of pretty young women. 🙂

    (Oh, BTW, dandies may not all be gay, but they are all gay-ish, and British Anglicans or Catholics, and not very manly.

    Sorry your crush Carolyn Farina let you down by changing her name and aging. 😉 )

    Reply

  2. […] O’Dea: The Sexual Politics of “Damsels in Distress”; pale brunette girl with blue eyes; […]

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  3. Posted by electricangel on August 14, 2013 at 6:28 pm

    I liked DinD better than Metropolitan, but then I was FAR from Red Pill when I first saw the latter. (The Red Pill did not exist until 1998 and The Matrix, anyway.) The wry humour in this film stod out for me.

    Watching movies post-Red-Pill means seeing them again for the first time. Take a look at Groundhog Day using a Roissyist lens. Fascinating.

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    • Ironically, Metropolitan is, to my mind, a much more “red pill” movie than Damsels. The former teaches that it is the sociopathic Rick von Slonecker who gets the girls moist, whereas in Damsels we are asked, sweetly but absurdly, to believe that the pretty Violet will deliberately avoid handsome, intelligent men.

      I have always instinctively known some of the Red Pill truths, and I have tended to be dubious about films that purvey the Blue Pill, so much so that I was able to watch Damsels without feeling too annoyed, especially as the film was clearly meant to be a bit of a fantasy in many respects, albeit with a serious underlying point. The more I think about it, the more I feel it was Stillman’s considered response to dealing with depression and failure, of which he has personally experienced his full share. Failure was a theme in Metropolitan and depression a theme in this latest film.

      One of the books on Stillman’s films refers in the title to “radical decency”. One can see that essential decency all the way through his movies. Stillman is aware of evil, and in fact he touches on some really disturbing sexual territory in all of his films, but he seems to be able to navigate a pathway towards decency in each case.

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    • Thanks, Will. It is clear that her boyfriend sodomised Lily in the film, but his reason for preferring sex like that did not ring true. And buggery is – as the Slate article implies – a traditional accusation against one’s enemies, though more typically male-male buggery. The other being cannibalism. I shall read that article because it is germane to what I am writing now, and I may put a copy of my draft article up here before submitting it to Oriens.

      My take is that Lily’s boyfriend was deceiving her. His reaction, and as I recall Lily’s, when it was suggested to him that what he was doing was like homosexual sex, equally sterile, was interesting. If he had been truly interested in Catharism, I suspect that homosexual sex would have met his approval.

      It is interesting that in one interview, Stillman claims his films are meant to be useful guides to young ladies. I believe this, as he tends to warn women of what men can get up to. This is particularly obvious in Metropolitan (threesomes are mentioned) and Damsels, but also in Disco a bit. Despite what he says, it is still pretty clear what happened to Lily. There is little ambiguity for anyone who is paying even normal attention.
      .

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      • Posted by electricangel on September 5, 2013 at 1:28 pm

        I suggest you make the last line of this comment a new post, DC.

        I followed Will’s link, and then a link from that. There’s an interview with Stilman where he talks about the sort of dance craze he would want to start, one of grace and fun: the exact opposite of twerking, for instance. Moreover, he seems to desire the things true reactionaries desire: beauty, and grace.

        The Cathars were opposed to procreative sex; they thought the world was a vale of tears, and thought it sinful to bring more children into it (like the Shakers, a self-limiting cult). It is not outrageous to think that they were given to sodomy, especially given the lush lips on young Lily.

        This recalls the oral fixation that has overwhelmed the world since a certain man got a “Lewinsky.” It has turned loathsome, vulgar, foul women like Angelina Jolie into sex symbols, because of the “DSLs” she fronts. The blight of ugliness is elsewhere on modern society, like we as a people see the physical world as sinful, and only sinful, and have decided to make it impossible to see it any other way. I think Stilman’s comment on us can be summed up as:

        Moderns are Cathars.

      • In case my remarks are unclear, by sodomy I mean anal sex, not oral. Some people use the term sodomy for both.

        For years I have been saying that moderns are Gnostics, rather a similar idea. I have written a draft of my article for Oriens, a trad Catholic magazine. The editor tells me I can have one picture.

        There is a recent piece by Hilary White in LifeSiteNews which basically argues that giving up on procreative sex as an ideal led to gay marriage. I may touch on that point too. The sad thing is that young men used to dream simply of one day making love and babies with a nice girl. Now the same man will dream of “coming on her face”, in the words of the recent song.

      • EA: What’s ‘DSL’?

      • J O’D, EA: I’d always understood the Cathars were like the later Shakers: anti-sex, period. That’s what seems to be indicated in encyclopedias, presumably based on proper historical texts.

        So, the Slate article is accurate, IMO, in that.

      • I, too, figured the boyfriend character was rationalizing, just so he could get his rocks off, rather than truly being a neo-Cathar. Thought Stillman was just having fun, showing off his knowledge of history. But, maybe he was indeed making a deliberate statement about modern society.

      • DSL presumably stands for “dick sucking lips”. It is a bit unfair to blame Angelina Jolie for her lips, and men’s imaginations. Pouty lips are attractive per se on women, signalling youth.

        In any case, Lily’s boyfriend was interested in the other end of her, not her mouth.

      • Posted by electricangel on September 6, 2013 at 3:14 am

        I was trying to keep this a FAMILY blog. Sheesh! I obviously meant that Angelina hasn’t upgraded to cable modem from digital subscriber line.

      • Oh, yeah, sorry Angel. Naturally. Digital subscriber thingie …

      • Actually, JO’D, one CAN blame Mrs. Pitt for her lips, because from what I understand, they’ve been surgically enhanced with botox injections. They certainly give that bee-stung look…

        “Dick sucking lips”, never actually heard that before as a phrase until now.

        I don’t think JO’D’s blog has ever been a ‘family blog’; surely you jest, EA.

      • Yes, but AJ may not have meant to look like she was about to give a BJ.

        Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

        I suspect she would have used collagen, not botox. But some girls do just have naturally pouty lips. Tea Leoni perhaps, the actress.

        I have tried to clean up the blog a bit. Some posts are gone or have gone private and I have taken some stuff out.

        Men can be very naïve about plastic surgery. I commented here recently on the lovely naturally aged look of Elizabeth McGovern, but there are claims she has had a fair bit of plastic surgery.

  4. Posted by electricangel on September 5, 2013 at 1:53 pm

    Sodomy IS both. Both are non-procreative forms of sexual interaction. Man, do manospherians hate to give up the Lewinsky.

    Hilary White is correct. The 1930 Lambeth decision decoupled sex and reproduction, and has led to the demographic and moral collapse of the West.

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    • Yes. Putting it crudely, once it no longer matters what happens to the semen, it no longer matters where it goes, into what orifice, or even into what sex of human being.

      The devil has had a huge victory in perverting the “right true end of Love”.

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  5. […] as a waitress, Carolina, in Whit Stillman’s recent film, Damsels in Distress, as a cameo in a recent post. But this was probably the wrong word. A cameo suggests a special or bijou appearance by an […]

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  6. Released in 1990, Metropolitan preceded, and perhaps foretold the rash of Austin adaptations that began with the suburb A&E version of Pride and Prejudice , continued with the excellent Clueless , the underrated Persuasion , the competent Sense and Sensibility and Emma , and bottomed out with the tarted-up indy version of Mansfield Park , and with Bridget Jones’s Diary , which re-imagined the heroine of Pride and Prejudice as a chunky, slutty dope obsessed with trivialities. Movies that extol the maintenance rather than the violation of social norms are simply not common, and movies that feature young women who are not just babe-a-licious but virtuous even less so. With the exception of Stillman’s projects, and, weirdly, the cheerleader movie Bring it On , the fad ended as soon as soon as Austin’s major novels were filmed.

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  7. Interesting essay, there. ‘Radical decency’, what a concept…

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  8. Of interest perhaps to EA and JO’D:

    http://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/our-new-albigensian-age

    I found it interesting, though I don’t agree that the Cathars were like Protestants; rather, I’d compare them to the early Anabaptists of Munster, Germany – except those Anabaptists engaged in sexual debauchery – like moderns…

    Reply

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