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.”
With a thesis worthy of Oscar Wilde, one of the male characters is writing an essay on the decline of decadence. He explains his idea to Violet:
violet: Have you chosen a topic for your paper?
fred: Uh, “The Decline of Decadence.”
violet: You think decadence has declined?
fred: Definitely. Big time. Major, major decline.
fred: “How” or “in what ways”?
fred: Okay, take the flit movement in literature, or homosexuality –
fred: Homosexuality. It’s gone completely downhill. Right down the tubes. Before, homosexuality was something refined, hidden, sublimated, aspiring to the highest forms of expression and often achieving them. Now it just seems to be a lot of muscle-bound morons running around in T-shirts.
Violet looks a little shocked.
fred: It’s pretty disillusioning.
Violet pauses in thought for a long moment.
violet: Are you gay?
fred: Not especially, but in another era it would have had more appeal. Now, I just don’t see the point.
The comedy of the female leads is expressed not just in their manner of speech and dress, but also in their specific proposals for reform. Perfume, they suppose, is a powerful counter to the “awful, acrid odor” that permeates college dorms, in response to which one character in the film suffers “nasal shock.” This is one of many over-the-top comic moments in the film, the sort of scene that makes you think Stillman is simply playing the whole thing for laughs. It is also hard to see how dancing, a perennial theme in Stillman’s films, could prevent the sort of depression that leads to thoughts of self-slaughter. Yet Violet’s great aspiration is to create a dance craze that will enhance “the life of everyone.”
The discrepancy between affliction and cure is comic, yet it contains a perceptive commentary about contemporary collegiate life. Stillman has made much of the locale for the shooting of the film. Snug Harbor on Staten Island, with its interlocking Greek Revival buildings, gives the feel of a tony New England liberal-arts college. It also serves to underscore a paradox about such campuses. The buildings hark back to an aristocratic world, a world in which the purpose of church and country and the point of education were more evident; today’s student is initiated into a world, not of determinate purpose, but of endless possibilities, with little or no guidance on how to make informed decisions about the possibilities. The freedom of the college campus is negative rather than positive liberty. It is freedom from, rather than freedom for. The gentle mockery of today’s higher learning reaches its peak in the scene in which a suicide craze suddenly grips the School of Education. Yet the students succeed only in inflicting serious injuries on themselves as they keep jumping from the second story of a building. How can they be expected to educate, muses one student, if they’re failing at this?
For the damsels, college is an arena free not only from parents but also from faculty and administrators. In that vacuum, the young women try to reestablish customs or rules. The result is comic. Consider this bit of dialogue about the desired male dating partner:
violet: Take Frank, my friend — he’s not some cool, handsome, “studly” macho guy. No, not at all — I can’t bear guys like that! Frank’s sort of a sad sack really, wouldn’t you say?
Rose and Heather nod.
lily: What’s a “sad sack”?
rose: A loser!
lily (to Violet): You like losers?
violet: Very much so. Do you know what’s the major problem in contemporary social life?
violet: The tendency, very widespread, to always seek someone “cooler” than yourself — always a stretch, often a big stretch. Why not instead find someone who’s frankly inferior?
heather: Someone like Frank.
violet: Yes. It’s more rewarding and in fact quite reassuring.
lily: You mean, someone you can really help? Not just thinking of yourself?
violet: Exactly! That’s it. Precisely! But without the goody-goody implications — our aspiration is pretty basic: Take a guy who hasn’t realized his full potential, or doesn’t have much, then help him realize it — or find more.
The serious point behind the humor is not of course that we ought to take Violet’s prescriptions as normative. Indeed, as is the case in other Stillman films, the reformers and theorists end up in trouble. Their schemes inevitably run afoul of the complexities of the real world. In the press notes for the film, Stillman comments, “It’s hard not to admire the idealists who, not content with the existent world, seek to invent new ones. But the confidence and mastery these future-architects embody often disguise a fragile persona that’s frail, inadaptive, and, finally, easily shattered.” That’s precisely what happens to Violet in Damsels.
The idealists, in this case the damsels, do have hold of a problem. Stillman’s comedy dovetails with recent commentary on college life. For example, in a book entitled Excellence without a Soul, former Harvard dean Harry Lewis delivers the dismal judgment that on our elite college campuses “liberal education lives on in name only.” Perceptively, he singles out for reproach the “infantilizing” sexual world of the college campus, which, up to the point at which the legal system must be invoked, has an utterly laissez-faire attitude toward sex.
Even the bit about smells and perfumes makes a subtle point. The innocence of Stillman’s films, with no overt sex and almost no coarse language (his characters say “heck” instead of “hell”), precludes his introducing us to the revolting stench and vulgar male toilet banter of the unisex bathroom. To get a sense of that world, one need only read an early scene from Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons. Yet, Stillman sees what Wolfe does not, namely, that many students long for something more and other than what colleges provide. As David Brooks wrote some years ago in his Atlantic essay “The Organization Kid,” some students long for guidance on what the purpose of education might be beyond the accumulation of yet another merit badge. On this topic, Brooks notes, the “authorities are strangely silent.”
Nowhere is the absence of customs and purpose more evident than in the confusion about relations between the sexes. Dating has nearly vanished from college campuses. How dire the situation has become is evident from a recent piece in Boston College Magazine about the popularity of philosophy grad student Kerry Cronin’s lecture, “10 Reasons You’re Not Dating and What to Do about It.” Cronin reflects on being shocked at one student’s response to her response to the question, “How would you ask someone out on a date?” The student, with notebook and pen in hand, abruptly interrupted Cronin’s initial, somewhat abstract response. “No,” she clarified, “what are the words?”
At least for Stillman, that brings us back to dancing. In a recent group interview, one of his regular actors, Chris Eigeman, addressed Stillman: “I do think that dancing for you is sort of perfect in a way, because on the one front, it’s this very codified way of genders intermixing. It’s both intimate but very, very public.” Eigeman then added, “The other thing is that you look incredibly silly when you do it.” That’s a pretty good guide to Stillman’s art: comedic silliness at once concealing and revealing truths about the human condition.
— Thomas Hibbs is dean of the Honors College at Baylor University. An updated and expanded version of his book Shows about Nothing has just been published by Baylor University Press.