When Terrence Malick returned to filmmaking after a two-decade hiatus, the result was 1998’s The Thin Red Line, which is in many ways the most Malicky of all his movies: all gorgeous imagery and pantheistic reveries, with only a few thin sticks of plot and character to serve as scaffolding for the visual brocade. It’s a beautiful film, but ultimately a tedious and unsuccessful one, and its failures suggested that the long hiatus had left Malick’s artistic gifts intact but robbed him of his discipline.
Something similar seems to be at work with Whit Stillman, whose new film Damsels in Distress represents his first cinematic foray since The Last Days of Disco in 1998. Everything that earned Stillman’s earlier work its cult following is present in his latest movie: the elaborate, elevated dialogue; the young actors playing old souls; the running critique of conventional wisdom in all its varied forms; the gently reactionary spirit. Indeed, in many ways Damsels is the most unmistakably Stillmanesque film the director has made yet. But it’s also in many ways his weakest movie: uneven in its comic tone, unfocused in its plotting, haphazard in its characterizations, and generally lacking a narrative that makes sense of its individual scenes and set pieces.
Stillman’s setting is Seven Oaks, a fictional liberal-arts college that only recently succumbed to the sexual revolution and began admitting men. The new arrivals are mostly boors and brutes and dimwits, squatting uncouthly in fraternity houses and polluting the campus with their body odor. Meanwhile, depression and despair seem to be sweeping the non-jock, non-frat portions of the campus, inspiring attempted suicides in a variety of forms.
Enter the titular damsels, a group of idealists on a mission civilisatrice. There are four: the strong-willed Violet (Greta Gerwig), the suspicious, Brit-accented Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), the dafty and chirpy Heather (Carrie MacLemore), and the transfer student they take under their wing, the big-eyed, coltish Lily (Analeigh Tipton). Their goal is uplift, moral and intellectual and aesthetic, but they follow Violet’s idiosyncratic ideas about how to make that uplift happen: They set out to date the dimmest frat boys they can find in order to elevate and improve them; they run a suicide-prevention center that offers dance lessons as therapy; they emphasize hygiene as a cure for knuckleheadedness, even distributing a particularly extraordinary-smelling soap; and they evince a deep suspicion of what Rose calls “playboy-operators” and good-looking men of all varieties.
Needless to say, this suspicion doesn’t prevent them from running into male-related difficulties. Violet bestows her affections on Frank (Ryan Metcalf), a squinting “sad sack” (in her words), only to have him betray her with one of her protégées, the formerly suicidal Priss (Caitlin Fitzgerald). Heather falls for Thor (Billy Magnussen), the dimmest of all the fraternity brothers. Lily is torn between a French charmer named Xavier (Hugo Becker) and a “strategic development” hotshot (Adam Brody) who may not be all that he seems. Meanwhile, Violet’s larger causes — the quest to start a new dance craze, a battle to save fraternity life from the smug, muckraking newspaper editor (Zach Woods) — often come to an entirely predictable grief.
The collision between an eccentric idealism and the realities of modern life is the stuff of classic Stillman. Violet’s dance-craze fascination harkens back to his last film’s counterintuitive defenses of disco. Brody’s character has a monologue on “the decline of decadence” that evokes the soliloquies that the actor Chris Eigeman delivered in prior Stillman productions. Like those films, Damsels in Distress is both a celebration of anachronism and a critique of its inevitable illusions. At its best, it captures the appeal of a certain kind of cultural conservatism while also exposing its inherent artificiality — the sense of play-acting required to sustain bygone ideas and attitudes in a cruder and more freewheeling world.
But the plot never goes anywhere, the characters never develop, and the various turning points and epiphanies fall flat. Rose and Heather are charming but one-note, and Brody is no Eigeman: The movie misses the crackle of male cynicism and self-loathing. (Woods’s newspaper editor provides it for a moment, but his character is in only two scenes.) Tipton’s Lily has a great, expressive face, but her motivations remain opaque and her relationship with Gerwig’s Violet never reaches the crisis point the movie seems to be moving toward. There’s a promising section when Gerwig’s character, brokenhearted and exposed, flees the safety of the campus for a motel and diner in the real world — but nothing interesting comes of it.
In Stillman’s earlier movies, the characters were self-consciously anachronistic but the world itself was explicitly the modernity we all inhabit. Seven Oaks, though, has a tinge of pure fantasy about it, from the pre-Raphaelite light that falls on the girls to the broad-beyond-belief stupidity of the fraternity characters (one of them literally doesn’t know his colors) to the dance number that breaks out just before the closing credits. This creates problems for the movie’s tone, but even more for the controlling theme: If the world of Damsels in Distress isn’t the real one to begin with, then how much can we care about the characters’ struggles to build up their own equally unreal alternatives?
Stillman’s fans, though, can take heart from the example with which this review began. Terrence Malick’s big return to filmmaking was a disappointment, but his follow-ups, The New World and The Tree of Life, have been near-masterpieces. Let’s hope for the same for the Bard of Urban Haute Bourgeoisie: May Damsels in Distress be a true new beginning rather than a valedictory, and may it make a bridge to better Stillman films to come.