Less mannered than Wes Anderson, more whimsical than Noah Baumbach, Whit Stillman is beloved by many fans of the two directors whose work most obviously suggests his influence—and he has other fans besides, of course, movie lovers who either are old enough (it’s been 14 years since his last feature film) or have sought out his films in repertory or on DVD.
Now, finally, half a generation after a trio of movies Stillman once referred to as his “Doomed-Bourgeois-in-Love” series, comes another feature, also, it seems, involving doom, the bourgeoisie, and love, though in what appears to be a decidedly new combination:
Damsels in Distress is, according to the press kit, about “beautiful girls who set out to revolutionize life at a grungy East Coast university” and try “to help severely depressed students with a program of good scent and musical dance numbers.” That may sound precious—and the trailer may suggest as much, too—but one of the striking things about Stillman’s work is that he’s always seemed to mean it: His movies express a longing for a time when our social lives genuinely were more formal; this has led many viewers to see the films as conservative, though Stillman has been coy on that subject.
Still, when Greta Gerwig refers in the trailer to “the major problem in contemporary social life,” Stillman fans may sense the familiar political touch, however light, that graces all his movies—even if Gerwig’s character is talking about social life at college. It’s even there in the witty change of “who” to “whom” in the retro-style title cards the trailer employs: correctness, formality—it matters.
The wittiness is the key, though, and it comes out most in Stillman’s inimitable dialogue. “You’re worried that I’m going to kill myself and make you look bad,” Aubrey Plaza says. “I’m worried that you’ll kill yourself and make yourself look bad,” replies Gerwig, making it clear that Stillman has some ironic distance from the efforts at social betterment hatched by his movie’s protagonists.
And that may not even be the trailer’s best line. I would also nominate another Gerwig remark: “I don’t like the word depressed,” she says. “I prefer to say that I’m in a tailspin.”
The movie has the hallmarks of Stillman’s past work, but that’s not to say that he’s repeating himself. His three movies are unmistakably his own, but each is also distinct: the prep-school-kids-in-Manhattan story and nearly black-and-white look of Metropolitan gave way to the former-prep-school-kids-abroad story and more colorful surfaces of Barcelona (perhaps his most straightforwardly enjoyable film). His third movie, The Last Days of Disco, had a darker mood, and a more disjointed structure. I’m not sure the latter quality was intentional; the movie doesn’t quite work for me, not as well as the first two.
Damsels in Distress, with its tap dancing and its college setting and its bevy of female leads, seems like another distinct entry in the Stillman oeuvre. It will reportedly arrive in theaters (in limited release) on April 6.