Damsels in Distress
Produced by Westerly Films
Written and directed by Whit Stillman
Distributed by Sony Pictures Classics
Is there a better remedy for depression than watching Fred Astaire’s films? Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig), the heroine of Whit Stillman’s magisterial Damsels in Distress, doesn’t think so. Neither do I. The medical and psychiatric communities may have their reservations regarding this therapy, but there can be no doubt among civilized people. There is simply no tonic equal to hearing Astaire sing George and Ira Gershwin’s “Things Are Looking Up” as he does on Stillman’s soundtrack. Should the afflicted also bestir themselves to imitate the master at whatever level of competence they can muster, their long-term cure is all but guaranteed, as Violet will personally attest.
Violet is a junior at Seven Oaks College, once a woman’s school that in the rush to stay contemporary—not to mention solvent—foolishly began matriculating smelly boys some 15 years before our story begins. Having taken full note of their beastly odor and crude manners, Violet and her roommates—all florally named as she is—have embraced a mission to improve these bumptious souls. Violet, Rose, Heather, and Lily, bless them, are especially devoted to the denser and gamier among the male slobs, reasoning that they need their civilizing attention more than less boorish fellows. It’s simple, according to Violet: “Find a guy who hasn’t reached his potential or hasn’t much at all and help him realize it or find more.”
As an adjunct to their noble effort, they have taken up the not-unrelated cause of running the campus Suicide Prevention Center. There they distribute doughnuts and counsel to supposedly suicidal depressives, while urging these sad sacks to regain their cheer by joining the ongoing tap-dancing class. This being a college catering to the pampered wealthy, the desperation of the girls’ patients often seems suspect. As one would guess, most of these patients are young ladies with love problems, but not exclusively so. The tap class includes a couple of formerly woebegone males who’ve been convinced to stop loitering palely and take up vigorous Terpsichore. One of these fellows even seems possessed of some of the masculine delicacy that made Astaire such a remarkably engaging dancer. Most seem happy to be under the girls’ watchful guidance.
Some are not, however. When Violet asks one young lady about her emotional state, the sullen coed turns on her. “You’re just afraid I’ll commit suicide and make you look bad,” she says bitterly.
“No,” Violet responds, “I’m afraid you’ll commit suicide and make yourself look bad.” In her resolutely cheerful way, Violet takes no shit. On the other hand, she can be taken in.
One inconsolable girl confesses to her that she’s been dumped and doesn’t understand why. With tears streaming down her face, she tells Violet that her beau had always gazed at her with such love in his eyes. “You’ve seen that, haven’t you?”
Violet regards her silently for a moment before confessing, “No, I never have.”
Her revelation is not surprising, really. Frank (Ryan Metcalf), Violet’s own young man, is a hopelessly self-infatuated dolt. When told his eyes are blue, he denies it. If they were, wouldn’t everything he looked at appear blue? A natural empiricist, he immediately tests his hypothesis. He closes his eyes and then opens them. No, he declares, his world is not blue, and that’s all that counts—his world. This signals the fundamental problem between the sexes in our time: self-absorption.
A scene later, Violet and her roommates come upon Frank in an alcove with Miss Teary-eyed. Whether Frank is gazing on her with love, neither we nor the acquiescent lady can tell, since he’s making out with her so strenuously that his not-blue eyes are tightly shut.
Doubly betrayed, Violet retreats to her bed. When asked if she’s feeling depressed, she replies that she doesn’t like the word. She prefers to say she’s in a tailspin. The question becomes whether her tailspin will yield to her own prescription. Of course, a neutral observer might reasonably wonder if Frank’s defection isn’t a blessing, but this would reveal a criminal lack of sensitivity for deluded youths, an offense not tolerated in our time.
What makes Stillman’s film so refreshing is its refusal to bow to the contemporary conventions in films about high-school and college youth. He abjures what have become the requisite scenes of youngsters pursuing each other in various states of undress in quest of the full and immediate sexual satisfaction they’ve been taught to demand as their inalienable right. (Such films surely affected Sandra Fluke—remember her?—the Georgetown law student who testified before Congress that, by pushing back the Obama mandate for birth-control coverage, the Republicans were threatening to take away her right to an endlessly renewable supply of contraceptive devices and thereby putting her at risk and inconvenience when emergencies, shall we say, arose.) Stillman’s students, like the ones with whom I’m acquainted, are not crazed wantons. Yes, they’re self-important, judgmental, and confused. But isn’t this the nature of youth? Besides, they’re generally quite charming. They spout oracular judgments on everything from religion to table manners and carefully hold only socially approved prejudices. Only one allows herself to be inveigled into bed. That’s the impressionable Lily (Analeigh Tipton), who succumbs to a poseur who uses his French origins and his supposed allegiance to the Cathars to convince her to have irregular sex with him, leaving her perplexed and chagrined. Tellingly, she’s also the roommate who, upon hearing of anyone who has violated the politically correct ethic everywhere embraced by undergraduates, automatically asks if the miscreant is Catholic.
While all this makes for a satisfying comedy with a gently satiric edge, it shouldn’t obscure Stillman’s fuller intention, which he more than hints at with a scene in which we find ourselves attending a class nicknamed Flit-Lit. This is a course devoted to the role the dandy tradition has played in English letters. A pompous professor is holding forth on Ronald Firbank’s influence on Evelyn Waugh. Firbank, he opines, was not sufficiently serious about his unseriousness—implying, I gathered, that Waugh was, which is indeed the case. It’s also the case for this film. At my first viewing, I arrived late and missed the first 20 minutes. I came away thinking the movie was delightful but no more nourishing than a lemon soufflé. When, in deference to my exalted calling, I saw it a second time to make up for my original delinquency, I recognized more clearly Stillman’s serious purpose beneath his surface charm. As Alexander Pope did in The Rape of the Lock, Stillman is calling upon us to attend to the genuine purpose of romance and its various exaggerated tribulations, a purpose so obvious that it’s easily ignored. Being the film’s rational voice, Violet brings it to light.
However foolish she can be, Violet nevertheless has the wisdom that comes with the long view. Like Clarissa in The Rape of the Lock, she knows perfectly well what romance is for. When Rose (a marvelously acerbic Megalyn Echikunwoke) denounces a young man as “a playboy or operator” for having bought their friends drinks at a local bar, Violet disagrees. She prefers to see his purchase as a generous gesture. And what if he did have ulterior motives? Shouldn’t he be exercising the masculine imperative? After all, isn’t it incumbent upon men and women to engage in such flirtation? They must be about the business of begetting the next generation, mustn’t they? The girls look at her in quiet surprise. It’s not every day that one of their peers pronounces something so startlingly obvious, not to mention so flouting of the au courant feminist ideology. Sad to say, Violet’s wisdom will likely never be uttered in any other movie set on a college campus. Not soon, anyway.
Like Violet, Pope’s Clarissa counseled her female friends to put both the joys and contretemps that mark the relations between women and men into perspective. However charming romance and its intrigues, they’re only means, not ends in themselves, for the very good reason that time is always at our heels. Here’s how Clarissa puts it:
Since, alas! frail Beauty must decay,
Curl’d or uncurl’d, since Locks will turn to grey,
Since paint’d, or not paint’d, all shall fade,
And she who scorns a Man, must die a Maid;
What then remains, but well our Pow’r to use,
And keep good Humour still whate’er we lose?
This is simple sanity. I find it cause for joy to see it so charmingly revived by Stillman and his lovely girls and yearning boys. Violet and Clarissa are right. It’s women’s duty to civilize the male of the species so that they can sing with Astaire that things are looking up.