Back with his first film in 14 years, Whit Stillman still operates in a world of his own. It's true both in respect to the singularity of his deadpan dialogic style, as well as to his hermetic milieu. With Damsels in Distress, Stillman's follow-up to 1998's The Last Days of Disco, the urban-haute-bourgeoisie-as-endangered-species sympathies are more refined than ever. Where earlier works like Metropolitan and Barcelona regarded the real world from within a Stillman-tinted bubble — satirizing it without necessarily being of it and transmuting realistic speech into poetic folly — this latest is all bubble: self-contained, unstably buoyant, and ardently frivolous.
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 doughnuts and the old soft-shoe. ("Tap is a highly effective therapy," Violet insists.)
Stillman delineates his filmic vocabulary like a serial cartoonist, reusing musical cues and tracking shots — left to right, over and over, the pasteled posse promenades past the same strip of neoclassical buildings — and ascribing Peanuts-worthy tics and catchphrases to his characters. Heather is all blinking saucer eyes, and man-weary, sideways-glancer Rose offers the same phrase about every boy they encounter: "He seems like a real operator, a playboy." The exception is Lily, who serves as our disoriented guide — and increasingly emboldened voice of reason — through this refracted, artificial world. Yet while she's a more relatable everygirl (Tipton plays it straight and, unlike her co-stars, looks age-appropriate), 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 (Violet prefers "tailspin" to "depression"), eliciting impatient condescension from Lily and charmed affection from everyone else. Her bounce-back? Hope for a new, self-authored dance craze called the sambola. "I adore optimism even when it's absurd," she says. "Perhaps especially then." Gerwig doesn't quite cut it as a preppie, but the slippage is the point. We're invited to laugh at Violet's execution but never at her aspirations or good intentions.
Within the left-leaning context of American independent cinema, the conservative streak in Stillman's films can feel defiant, even liberating. But considering the socioeconomic moment into which Damsels arrives — we're not in the go-go Clinton-era anymore, Toto — it's relieving how scarcely Stillman's reactionary subtext bubbles to the surface. The old world order is lionized, but more as an oblique, impersonal idea — atypical for Stillman, parentage never really come up — while the past is pined after for its politesse, not politics. Cheap shots are taken at journalists (the campus paper is called The Daily Complainer) as well as teachers (when depressed education students start hurling themselves from a second-story balcony, Violet crows, "If they can't destroy themselves, how are they going to teach America's children?"), and a rueful riff on the decline of closeted homosexuals is a glaring misfire. But the thing that Damsels and its damsels value above all else — outside of well-timed, well-phrased, slyly deployed witticisms (Stillman hasn't lost a step) — is sure to rankle mavericks on both sides of the aisle. Forget the economy — it's about conformity, stupid. Rather than eccentricity, says Violet, "what the world needs is a large mass of normal people." At which point she and her cohort partner off in matching outfits (girls in plantation gowns; boys in black jackets and khakis) to synchronize dance through campus to the tune of Fred Astaire's "Things Are Looking Up."
Four features in, Whit Stillman's cinematic sensibility is both plain as day and hard to pin down. In a Stillman film, a lost gentility is regularly romanticized but rarely ever properly defined, let alone reacquired. Rules are fetishized for the implication, if not the realization, of order. And in this, his most plainly satirical film that is also arguably his least cynical, a bunch of aspiring conformists reliably do the most abnormal of things — sniff bars of soap, conjugate the plural of doofus, choreograph the sambola. Dancing breaks out in all of Stillman's films and usually just because. All the cardigans and brass-buttoned blazers in the world can't cloak that kind of eccentricity.