It never seemed like Whit Stillman was going to be prolific. There were four years between his 1990 debut Metropolitan and the largely forgotten follow-up Barcelona and then another four years before his third film, 1998’s The Last Days of Disco. The length of time wasn’t especially surprising either, given the intricate cascades of dialogue that he wrote. It was easy to imagine him hunched over a typewriter or notepad (there are enough vestiges of old-fashioned sensibility in his work that’s it hard to picture him working with anything as garish as a computer), honing each line of dialogue until it clicks into place like a perfectly line-up Lego. Still, he was a regular enough worker that it wasn’t at all expected that it would be over a decade before his next film. And now that Damsels in Distress is here, it has the odd quality of seeming to emanate from a creator whose sense of filmmaking is the shadow of a memory. It’s a little tentative, a little haphazard and, in the closing scenes, charges forward with a a disregard for expectations or, really, rules and conventions of any kind. The fascinating thing is that the looser and goofier it gets, the better it gets. At this rate, it might be nice for Stillman to take even more time off between films, letting him get a little more lost.
As it starts, the film clearly adheres to Stillman’s established style. Set at a posh college, the story follows a trio of young women, led by a placidly certain blonde played by Greta Gerwig, who adopt a new transfer student played by Analeigh Tipton, ostensibly to guide her through the treacherous social terrain of the campus. It’s really a manner of asserting their own authority, of course, playing up their erudite, undervalued approach to the world. This is the same sort of quaint satire that defined Stillman’s earlier work, with overdressed young people having pithy, complicated conversations colored with a mild disdain over a corroding culture. Stillman is tweaking the self-satisfaction of his characters, even as his loving attention to verbal details also hints at a certain amount of envy.
It can seem a little stiff, which is the eternal challenge Stillman faces with his style. With their nuggets of outdated jargon and crisp elocution, it can be hard to accept them as living, thinking beings. Arguably, The Last Days of Disco is Stillman’s only film that largely avoids this problem, in part because moving his plot through decadent clubs naturally loosened Stillman up, and in part because lead actress Chloë Sevigny couldn’t give into being overly formal if she tried. By contrast, Gerwig, a resonantly natural actress, sometimes seems confined by the language, as if she’s afraid she might disrupt a fragile vase if she speaks the ornate words with too much feeling. That suits the character somewhat, but it also chills the narrative arc of the film. There are grand, youthful emotions at play, but it sometimes comes across like the most refined of drawing room dramas.
A curious thing happens as the film progresses, though. The formality starts to sag in on itself and odd details emerge, beginning with a building on campus that’s especially prone to students hurling themselves from the uppermost floor in suicidal despair. But since that uppermost floor is only the second, they’re left fully alive and conscious, with maybe a broken ankle to show for their dramatic gesture. This is the stuff of Thomas Pynchon or early Don DeLillo, not a swell like Stillman. The unexpected continues with musical numbers, including one that plays over the closing credits that takes on a pleasing meta charge, providing Gerwig’s character with a specific victory that otherwise eludes her in the pure fiction of the film. These pieces exist so far apart from Stillman’s tenets that could be gleaned from his earlier films that their downright jarring, and, in being that, absolutely thrilling. Generally nice as it is in theory to welcome Stillman back with Damsels in Distress, it’s most promising when it begins to seem like the crisp suit of his storytelling is starting to grow a little frayed and the buttons are coming undone.