Writer/director Whit Stillman made a trio of marvelous movies in the 1990’s: Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, films that explored the lives, loves and semi-aspirations of the sons and daughters of the upper middle class/lower upper class with a staircase wit that was reminiscent of All About Eve and the plays of Philip Barry. But after The Last Days of Disco, he was ne’er to be seen until this year when he gave us Damsels in Distress, a somewhat arch character study of a quartet of women at a higher institute of learning who, like so many movies that take place at institutes of higher learning, almost never go to class or do homework, but somehow manage to remain in school.
In many ways, Damsels… has a number of Stillman’s virtues. There is definite wit here in the oddball conversations and off kilter trains of thoughts that come flowing from his unique characters. Stillman at times shows a lot of affection for his upper middle class youth (rather than mercilessly attack them as other films like Less Than Zero and Twelve do). And there is something so pleasantly weird about the whole situation. It should also be said that the actors do a pretty convincing job of speaking Stillman’s stylized dialog as if was a natural as a David Mamet play (it’s never that realistic, but neither was Oscar Wilde) while employing Stillman’s laid back acting style. At the same time, the movie just never quite comes together.
I think there are two clear reasons for this. The first and perhaps most important is that Stillman seems to have chosen the wrong central character. Analeigh Tipton plays Lily, a transfer student who is taken under wing by Violet, played by Greta Gerwig, someone who most people would call, well, quite a character (to be kind). By all rights Lily should be front and center. She’s the stranger in a strange land, the character in the movie that is a stand in for the audience. It’s through her eyes that we are to interpret everything. But the movie doesn’t begin with her, it begins with Violet. And as the movie goes on, Violet is such a, well, quite a character (to be kind), that Stillman allows her to steal the limelight until so much to too much of the movie seems to revolve around her.
But Violet is very off putting, very unlikable, and not in a particularly interesting or intriguing way. She has such a weird view of life and how to respond to everything that goes on around her, that it’s hard to empathize with her or take her remotely seriously. In fact, she seems so incredibly intolerant and small minded, you’re tempted to flee the movie so you don’t have to spend any more time with her than you have to. The only really interesting aspect of her character is her goal to create a new dance craze ala the waltz, Charleston and twist because dance crazes can really change the world by bringing people together and giving them meaning in life—an argument hard to, well, argue against. But even this part of her character feels rather limp in the context of the story.
This leads to the second issue. Stillman does give Lily a satisfying enough reason to originally become friends with Violet. Lily has no place to stay due to a bureaucratic flub by the college, so Violet has her move in with her and her entourage (what is known as the meet cute plot twist in a rom com). But once Lily moves in and gets to know Violet, Stillman really can’t come up with a satisfying reason for Lily to continue hanging out with Violet as much as she does. This also applies to the entourage as well. It becomes increasingly hard to fathom why anyone would want to be around Violet for any length of time. Even Rose, her best friend since fifth grade, isn’t convincing here. Most people don’t hang out with people they knew from elementary school, so it may be unclear exactly what compels Rose to. Violet is like Jean Brodie, but without the charisma and view of life that would attract anyone to her.
So what is the movie about? Lily’s coming of age and realizing that Violet either has worth or is seriously troubled? Or is it about Violet’s determination to change the world according to her own distorted vision? I suppose it could have been both, but right now, it’s neither fish nor foul.
The movie culminates with that dance craze that Violet hoped to create. It’s kind of a downer since it’s not that particularly an interesting or creative a light fantastic. It’s just a mish-mash of various ball room genres that is taught to the audience like the hokey-pokey or the time warp. I think it’s supposed to be celebratory and fill the audience with some sort of uplift, but, sad to say, it sort of falls flat, like the movie.