When I first heard Whit Stillman was making another movie, I didn’t believe it. After years of Mitch Hurwitz promising to make an Arrested Development movie (which is finally happening!), I was very skeptical of things I love coming back to me. After 13 years of Stillman’s absence, after hearing that he was and then wasn’t working on that Jamaica movie and then was and wasn’t adapting Christopher Buckley’s Little Green Men, I couldn’t hope anymore. I threw in the towel. And then after his new movie premiered at Cannes, I told myself that if it actually came out, it wouldn’t be any good. Because of that long hiatus from film-making, he’d be off his game. I refused to get my hopes up, to kick at a football I knew Whit was just going to take away when I got close to contact.
But the film premiered last Friday in Chicago and after almost a decade of waiting, I finally got to kick that football, and it felt so good. Damsels in Distress isn’t Stillman’s best movie. It’s uneven and sometimes unsure of itself, because it’s trying out so many ideas, a problem oddly befitting of the insecure undergraduates Stillman documents. As in Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco, Stillman’s characters are of the self-described Urban Haute Bourgeoisie class, also known as pseudo-intellectual preppies. Many other directors might look at this stratum of folks as merely a target for satire, but like Christopher Guest, Stillman’s touch is much lighter. He empathizes with these girls and their romantic distresses as much as he riffs on their post-adolescent pretentions.
His first film, Metropolitan, is the best example of this, a semi-autobiographical film about the people he met during his first Christmas break from Harvard. Metropolitan is completely driven by dialogue and what those words say about the person that says them, and UHB speech relies heavily on the sort of self-conscious archness reminiscent of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Remember Daisy from the ill-fated Coppola adaptation of The Great Gatsby? Imagine a movie where everyone kind of talks like that, but less incessantly irritating.
The Last Days of Disco, his last film before the comeback, perfectly encapsulates the idea of Stillmanspeak. The film deals with recent Ivy League graduates trying to make their way up in early 80s New York, a time tentatively defined by the rapidly declining disco scene. To gain status and prestige, the characters understand that it’s about where you are seen and who you are seen with. In the same way, the case of Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) shows that, for these people, it’s not just important what you say; it matters how you say it. Beckinsale’s Charlotte is something of a Captain Obvious, prone to making inane observations like, “One of the things I’ve noticed is that people hate to be criticized,” but saying it as if it were the most profound things she had ever heard.
Part of the reason for this is that Stillman consistently documents characters whose social orders are in a state of transition or decline, and in order to maintain one’s makeshift status, the characters must constantly display their class worth and intellectual prowess—which are always intertwined. In reviewing Stillman’s newest film, Roger Ebert noted that Stillman’s characters are so absurd that his world could “only believe in itself.”
I think part of the reason is that—in documenting social transition—Stillman’s characters are an anachronism of an anachronism. Metropolitan is based on the 1970s but seems oddly set in the present (then the 1990’s), and the life they aspire to — of debutante balls and cocktail parties — is already a fantasy of the past. As Ebert states, “they are carrying on a tradition that was dead before they were born.”
Because of that, something to me always felt off about the Whit Stillman universe, even as I admired his skill at creating dialogue. His universe never quite made sense to me, because it’s artifice about artifice. However, Damsels in Distress’s real subject is that façade, the effects of living in your own fantasy, and the Stillmanesque artifice somehow makes more sense when he is dealing with the 21st century.
As Stillman’s Metropolitan is both ahead of its time in the canon of 90’s independent films and behind its time, his biggest influences are Woody Allen and Preston Sturges, the film seems chronologically adrift, as if you were watching an old movie that happened to be about people you knew. But after a decade and change of other directors picking up where Stillman left off, the Stillman universe makes more sense than it ever did. Rather than being the sole auteur of the upper-middle class WASP, Stillman’s UHB set is now part of a community also populated by the characters of The Royal Tenenbaums and The Squid and the Whale. Although some might accuse Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson of ripping off Stillman, I think their films refine and flesh out Stillman’s narratives. They make his world real, something that feels like it exists in the now.
And Stillman himself, in dealing with the 21st century, finds its preoccupations and obsessions more conducive to his treatment than even he might have imagined. In Damsels in Distress, Greta Gerwig’s effortlessly affected Violet perfectly encapsulates the post-Wes Anderson hipster girl, a kooky cousin to Zooey Deschanel.
Once again, Stillman’s characterization of Violet is completely driven by his influences, and in addition to Preston Sturges, Stillman clearly borrows from the zesty farces of P.G. Wodehouse. (The film’s title is even a spin on Wodehouse’s own Damsel in Distress.) But rather than allowing these referents to chain him to the past, Stillman is doing something he never has before: looking forward. Damsels in Distress is a film unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and now that he’s been unleashed on the 21st century, it makes me so excited to see what he does next. Let’s just hope that it doesn’t take another 13 years.