Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Whit Stillman and Damsels in Distress

Defender of the American upper crust and Comedy of Manners virtuoso, director and screenwriter Whit Stillman has gained considerable acclaim for his witty depictions of youthful elites in crisis. Thirteen years after the release of his last film, Stillman returns with Damsels in Distress – a college caper romance with panache – which conforms to the style of his earlier films but with some trademark features noticeably more pronounced...

Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman was 38 when he made his first film, Metropolitan, an expertly scripted chamber piece which went on to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 1991. His second feature, Barcelona, featured similar characters that made Stillman’s first so distinctive – humorously drawn, loquacious and privileged young adults – and this too was well received. However, it was another four years before Stillman finished his third film, Last Days of Disco, about a college graduate called Alice, a virtuous heroine played with well-considered ambiguity by ChloĆ« Sevigny who moves in to an apartment in New York with Charlotte, a ruthless socialite drawn out with surprising depth by Kate Beckinsale.

While much has been made about the class of Stillman’s moneyed protagonists, as well as their erudite conversation, little attention is devoted to other recurring trademarks that define the film worlds he evokes. The highly stylised aesthetics of a Stillman film, from the retro-design typefaces used in his credit sequences to the classically tailored outfits worn by his actors, all promote an idealised vision of the upper class. Another common aspect is that almost all of the characters in Stillman’s films are young adults struggling to come to terms with their identity, and as such display a vulnerability that would be more difficult to convey in an older, possibly more rigid set of personalities. In a recent interview, Stillman explained how characters between the ages of 16 and 20 are of particular interest; “... that’s a really interesting period in people’s lives because it’s sort of a petri dish of identity formation.” By focussing on these precocious but nevertheless uncertain individuals, Stillman presents a deliberately incomplete picture of the wealthy by drawing singular attention to their offspring.

The youthful spirit of his films can also be seen in his playful use of music and, in particular, dance – a form of expression Stillman holds up as a mirror to the coded rituals that he explores in his meandering plots.  In Damsels in Distress, there is also little doubt that he uses the central role of Violet, portrayed with pitch-perfect absurdity by Greta Gerwig, as a means of conveying autobiographical elements from his past. Violet is the self-appointed queen bee among a group of girls at the fictitious Seven Oaks College, determined to use tap-dancing and improved hygiene as a means of increasing the social prospects of her colleagues as well as preventing their demise through suicide. Gerwig’s Violet is dominant, idealistic, sympathetic and determined to start her own dance craze. She’s also a believer in the therapeutic qualities of a particular brand of hotel soap which she finds while on a jaunt away from campus. It is when she returns from this trip, which she takes after being cruelly heart-broken, that Violet reveals the profoundly melancholic aspect to her nature, which up to this point has only been suggested. It is this sensitivity that audiences identify as Stillman’s own which makes Damsels his most outlandish as well as his most compassionate and authentic film to date. 

Alice Butler

Damsels in Distress opens at the IFI this Friday, April 27th. For more information and bookings, please contact our box Office on 01 679 3477, or book online:

Watch film trailer here:

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