Film of the Week: Let’s Do the Sambola: Whit Stillman Gets Happy with ‘Damsels in Distress’

From the very moment that the words “Oh a golden oldie! I love these!” poured out of Gerta Gerwig’s mouth, alongside the thumping beat of a late-90s’ dance song, I was certain that Damsels in Distress was going to be another wonderous Whit Stillman film in the vein of Last Days of Disco (1998) or Metropolitan (1989). While I was not far from the truth, I was centuries away from the dynamic.

For years, Whit Stillman has created an entire cinematic universe based upon (no pun intended) a strange kind of wit, dark cynicism, and sweet romance, which all transpire and intertwine in the milieu of the economically well-endowed. If this is the viewer’s first visit to the Stillman-verse, he or she might be a little unsettled in that it does not play out as typical narratives play out: the dialogue seems stilted due to meticulous linguistic accuracy, while characters themselves are painted to such perfection that they become flawed within that perfection. However, Damsels in Distress adds a new slant: innocence.

The Cinema of Stillman previous to Damsels involves a cast that was jaded, cynical, and somehow disparaging of the world that they reside in. Even the characters who are the most optimistic are somehow weary. Damsels in Distress seems to examine all of that, flip all of those characteristic “Whit-isms,” and re-engage the viewer on an alternate level while still maintaining a certain level of Stillman’s previous cynicism. While Stillman probably will never wholly develop a happy-go-lucky tale, Damsels in Distress is about as close as he will ever get to that. There are certain characters in the story who start out being portrayed in one manner and, by the conclusion, become entirely new and beloved figures. This is a new progression. It usually goes the other way around. Especially in matters of intelligence.

Damsels in Distress is the story of a cadre of girls at a high-end college who see it as their duty in life to “save” students who are “less fortunate” than they. The students in need of saving happen to include suicidal college students, students from the area that don’t quite have their “cleanliness in gear,” and the Roman Houses (read: Frat Boys), who may not quite be as intellectually savvy as their female counterparts. Saving rituals involve coffee and donuts for emergency cases, as well as the organization of a dance show at the Suicide Prevention Center, which the young ladies run. Due to a few mishaps, a few of these roles become reversed, and things start getting rather interesting on campus.

In the Q&A Stillman and actress Analeigh Tipton gave at the Cinefamily for the Sony Pictures Classics preview, Tipton said that she was incredibly attracted to the script for many reasons but that the fact that it was “smart, driven by females, and layered” were the main ones. “Whit’s world is a fantastic place,” she effused. Stillman himself said that the point for many of the characters in the film was that they “start off pretending to be something else and then they become that thing.”

The film itself is broken down into sections and named (i.e. “Youth Outreach” or “Roman Holidays”) on separate title cards, ideally causing the viewer to meditate upon the principles being set forth in each section. But Stillman’s new consortium of music, humor, and storytelling becomes more involving. While the inter-titles are still quite important to the film, they became more like dance cards and less like story-appropriate devices.

Damsels in Distress, while not a musical, is a film that is heavily driven by its musical score and the music within. In addition, it is hard to ignore the fact that it contains several fairly remarkable dance numbers. Dance numbers? In a Whit Stillman movie? Yes. In a way, there are certain ways in which this film harkens back to the kinds of bitter romance and musical engagement of something like Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) in the manner of the verbiage and the balanced musical-to-standard-film structure (not to mention the heartbreaking storyline). But it’s definitely of a different era, although that is also something that Stillman discussed.

When asked about the time-period for the film and about nostalgia, Stillman replied that the response for the film had been pretty standard. “Lots of people are confused by the time period of the film. They should be. It’s intentional.” When curator Hadrian Belove asked about his other films’ relation to that same subject and whether all of his films maintain that same amorphous time-period, Stillman said, very solidly, “Yes, all of them.”

In a sense, this gives Stillman’s work a timelessness that is both unique and beautiful. By not dating himself, his cinema, which, as he admits, has been, few and far-between as of late, will not “go bad.” The hairstyles, the dress, the buildings, in all their vanilla, brown, and earthy glories are part of an oeuvre that doesn’t need to be refrigerated, time-wise. It all preserves a certain era of no-era. It’s Whit’s World.

Damsels in Distress is no Last Days of Disco (1998), nor is it any other film he has previously made. But that is precisely what makes it so appealing. While he maintains the same qualities that catalyze people to go see a Stillman film (the dialogue, the characters, and the class/economic discussion), his Damsels adds joy – pure unadulterated joy. There’s joy in the music, in the dance, in certain aspects of self-discovery. These are all things that never found a home in the Whit Stillman World. While this joy certainly takes some getting used to, it only brings the film up to a level that has more “layers,” as Tipton notes above. Here’s a basic fact of filmmaking and life: it’s virtually impossible to have a film that introduces a dance craze and expect the audience to find it unappealing. Hairspray (John Waters, 1988) is another perfect example of this. It’s about the joy that the audience receives.

So let’s all do the Sambola and hope that the joy from Damsels in Distress can continue on. Whit’s World is a wonderful world to begin with, but it’s even more fascinating when he begins to add rainbows and dance numbers.

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