Charming Demoiselles

It’s good to see the return of writer/director Whit Stillman. I missed his refreshing take on the world, peopled with earnest, decent, often forlorn characters who parody the culture by way of urbane, stylized discussions. In Damsels in Distress, Stillman again features the upper classes, those most maligned by the yawn-inducing “independent” film establishment that applauds its own supposed bravery by shooting ancient fish in an ancient barrel.

When he broke onto the scene in 1990 with Metropolitan, a tribute to debutante after-parties, Stillman won my devotion with characters lamenting the plot of Buñuel’s over-hyped film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: “When I first heard the title,” says Charlie, “I thought: ‘Finally someone’s gonna tell the truth about the bourgeoisie!’ What a disappointment. It would be hard to imagine a less fair or accurate portrait…The truth is, the bourgeoisie does have a lot of charm.”

Of course it does; people are people, even if they do dress better and live in nicer houses than we do. Stillman is the champion of those seldom championed.

Damsels is the director’s first film since 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, and it quiets fears that too much time has passed since his last outing. Like many of his heroines, Violet (played perfectly by Greta Gerwig) is the Austenish leader of a group of sweater-over-sundress co-eds with floral names (Rose and Heather) who set out to re-civilize an east coast liberal arts school. The place has gone downhill ever since they admitted boys, and some of the girls suffer nasal-shock syndrome from dorm-emitted fumes.

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