Whit Stillman’s Damsels in the Clouds
“I like my characters to walk in clouds,” said the great comedy director Leo McCarey. “I like a little bit of the fairy tale.”
That confession well describes the McCarey classics that execute a precarious balance between realism and fantasy—The Awful Truth, Make Way for Tomorrow, Love Affair, The Bells of St. Mary’s, Good Sam, even his Ruggles of Red Gap (currently in revival at Film Forum)—which took a whimsical approach to the peculiarity of America’s historical identity. McCarey’s line also describes what distinguishes the films of Whit Stillman, whose new feature, Damsels in Distress, is his first movie in 14 years.
The volunteering girls at Seven Oaks College in Damsels in Distress occupy a peculiar world, set apart from working life. They walk in the clouds of the privileged pursuits of youth, enjoying the leisure of education and idealism about romance, religion and politics—in that order of importance, though not obviously so.
Violet (Greta Gerwig), a tall, gangly-when-not-graceful sophomore, is full of private tastes and philosophies—suicide prevention and tap dancing are her volunteer causes. She’s lucky enough to head her own beautiful-girl clique, a group who support each other and invite newbie Lily (Analeigh Tipton) to join them. They’re a bouquet of eccentrics, with names like Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and archly syllabic speech. Yet, like the vulgar beer-and-cocktail boys they are attracted to (their “distress” Ryan Metcalf, Adam Brody, Billy Magnussen, Jermaine Crawford), each is so pretty and engaging she conveys Stillman’s fascination with the same human qualities and conflicts that made McCarey’s films so moving. His bouquet of eccentrintrics defines itself when one girl sees artichokes for the first time and exclaims”They look so weird!” (Those who don’t catch Stillman’s humor are likely to say the same.)
Damsels in Distress is Stillman’s youth movie. His previous films, Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, surveyed young folk entering the complications of adulthood, but his long absence has added charitable distance to Stillman’s take on maturity. This is, in part, his response to Mumblecore and the opportunity that trust-funded movement provided for his brand of non-commercial class comedy, but Stillman is too focused and articulate to be mistaken for Mumblecore.
His awareness of class has always made him the most idiosyncratic indie. Whereas Mumblecore directors take their social advantages for granted, Stillman makes those advantages crucial to his characters’ spiritual struggles. (It’s in their romantic gamesmanship and political one-upsmanship, as when Violet jousts with the campus journalist. Her pursuit of humanism and a perfect relationship is explained by Heather: “Only excellence can glorify the Lord”).
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