What College Women Want
Whit Stillman is the poet of young people who long for something more.

Greta Gerwig as Violet in Damsels in Distress (Sony Picture Classics)


Thomas S. Hibbs

Damsels in Distress, Whit Stillman’s first film since 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, focuses on the lives of a group of co-eds at a fictional East Coast college that is dominated by a boorish and vulgar male mentality. The young women (Greta Gerwig as Violet, Megalyn Echikunwoke as Rose, and Carrie MacLemore as Heather) devote themselves to reforming the male-dominated ethos of the college with the goal of rescuing students from all sorts of evils, everything from suicidal depression to unsavory odors. As is always the case in Stillman films — which in addition to Disco include Metropolitan and Barcelona — the main characters are quaint and innocent; this film is more overtly comic than his previous entries and less situated in a determinate social milieu. Damsels is about what has been lost, about the absence among the young of any clear mores governing relations between the sexes. Beneath the comic veneer, it is a remarkably perceptive commentary on what ails the contemporary liberal-arts college.

Although The Last Days of Disco was a box-office disaster, Stillman’s films have received critical acclaim and attained a kind of cult following, especially among conservatives. Both Disco and Metropolitan have been released in Criterion Collection editions; Mark Henrie edited a volume for ISI Books entitled Doomed Bourgeois in Love: Essays on the Films of Whit Stillman. Stillman’s films are chatty; they feature young characters trying to find some sort of orientation in a social world that offers little in the way of guidance. They are often highly educated, overly analytical, and self-involved. Yet they are complex characters, capable of warmth, generosity, and even insight.

Stillman has a knack for dialogue that exposes hollow, modern clichés. Concerning the supposition that great works of the past are irrelevant to the contemporary world, consider this exchange from Metropolitan. When a male character asserts, “Almost everything Jane Austen wrote, looked at from today’s perspective, is absurd,” a young woman counters, “Has it ever occurred to you that today looked at from Jane Austen’s perspective would look even worse?” On the admonition that the most important thing in life is to be true to oneself, consider this confessional speech from one of the characters in Disco:

Do you know that Shakespearean admonition “To thine own self be true”? It’s premised on the idea that “thine own self” is pretty good, being true to which is commendable. What if “thine own self” is not so good? What if it’s pretty bad? Would it better, in that case, not to be true to “thine own self”? See? That’s my situation.

Much of the humor in Damsels arises from the arcane, oddly formal way the young women speak and from their naïve idealism. Rose, for example, has picked up a British accent and expresses her suspicion of nearly every male by accusing him of being a “playboy-operator type.” One of the ways Violet and her friends show their commitment to others is through their volunteer work at a Suicide Prevention Center. As they approach the center in one scene, Violet picks up the sign reading “Prevention” and relocates it between the words “Suicide” and “Center” and comments, “We’re trying to make a difference in people’s lives. And one way to do that is to prevent them from killing themselves. . . . Have you ever heard the expression, ‘Prevention is nine-tenths the cure?’ Well, in the case of suicide, it’s actually ten-tenths.”