Damsels in Distress: Whit Stillman’s Defiantly Smart/Silly Return to Cinema

Back with his first film in 14 years, Whit Stillman still operates in a world of his own. With Damsels in Distress, Stillman’s urban-haute-bourgeoisie-as-endangered-species sympathies are more refined than ever. On her first day at Seven Oaks College, transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) is scooped up by a trio of prepossessed coeds who school her on campus culture and their own oddly refined sensibilities. Over group strolls and bunk-bed chats, cardigan-clad ringleader Violet (Greta Gerwig), prim Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and petite Heather (Carrie MacLemore) preach the virtues of good hygiene, dating down to less-intelligent boys (“It’s more rewarding,” reasons Violet, “and, in fact, quite reassuring”), and suicide prevention via the restorative potential of the old soft-shoe. (“Tap is a highly effective therapy,” Violet insists.) Lily serves as our disoriented guide—and increasingly emboldened voice of reason—through this refracted, artificial world. Yet while she’s a more relatable everygirl, it’s anachronistic, hopelessly romantic, impeccably mannered Violet who prevails as Stillman’s heroine. When her mouth- breathing boyfriend ditches her for a more sexually aggressive gal, she falls apart almost as a matter of decorum. Her bounce-back? Hope for a new, self-authored dance craze called the sambola. Four features in, Whit Stillman’s cinematic sensibility is both plain as day and hard to pin down. Dancing breaks out in all his films, usually just because. All the cardigans and brass-buttoned blazers in the world can’t cloak that kind of eccentricity.