Filmmaker Whit Stillman has managed with considerable aplomb to avoid the clichés of the romantic comedy, a genre within whose parameters he nevertheless works, not least in his fourth film of five, Damsels in Distress (2011). In addition to being a romantic comedy, to the extent of transforming itself in its denouement into a 1930s guy-gets-girl musical number, with Fred Astaire’s voice patched into the soundtrack, Damsels in Distress is a college film. Because Stillman understands the meaning and function of college, his college film is also a film about civilization – or rather about the current degeneracy of what used to be Western Civilization, as made manifest by the decline of higher education. In Damsels in Distress, Stillman has undertaken to represent what I once, in a casual essay, half-jokingly called subscendence, a kind of active anti-transcendence that seeks the lowest level in everything; but Stillman has also created a set of characters, in his eponymous damsels, who, discerning subscendence and judging it repellent, rally themselves to mount resistance against it.
Greta Gerwig, Annaleigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, and Carrie MacLemore play the young women “in distress”: Violet, the leader and speaker of the group; Lily, the newcomer; Rose, the resident cynic; and Heather, the paradigm of the cute girl. All four of Stillman’s actresses are strikingly beautiful, but in quirky ways that defy the parameters of “starlet” beauty. Even Tipton, who had a career in modeling before Stillman cast her as Lily, is beautiful in an odd but piquant way. The quality of beauty emerges already as a theme in Stillman’s second film, Barcelona (1994). Ted Boynton, as played by Taylor Nichols, tells his cousin Fred Boynton, as played by Chris Eigeman, that, “I’m beginning to reconsider my attitude toward female beauty.” The Nichols character has come to think of such beauty as “very bad” because, “You see a beautiful girl and you’re subject to all these emotions… some… very powerful, almost uncontrollable.” He ends up, all the same, married to an exceptionally attractive Spanish girl.
Gerwig’s Violet in Damsels echoes Nichol’s Boynton in Barcelona. Violet explains to Lily, once Lily has been inducted into the group on the first day of the semester, that, as romantic prospects, she prefers “sad sacks” and “losers.” Violet believes that “the major problem in contemporary social life” is “the tendency, very widespread, to always seek someone ‘cooler’ than yourself,” and “it’s always a stretch, often a big stretch.” Drawing her own conclusion, she asks rhetorically, “Why not find someone who’s frankly inferior?” Violet means by her criterion of inferiority a lack of maturity and a degree of mental dullness, as summed up in her current boyfriend, Frank, as played by Ryan Metcalf. That is not all that she means, however: Later, in conversation with Priss, as played by Caitlin Fitzgerald, Violet says that, “In my view, handsome men are to be avoided.” She continues: “I don’t even consider good looks to be flattering in a man.” In Violet’s opinion, “good-looking guys” are invariably “full of themselves, getting everything they want, never suffering.”
Violet, like Ted Boynton, seems to see the self-exploitation of natural good looks as a species of vicious conformism, a lapse into original sin and total selfishness. Because the social environment to which the conformist conforms is a narcissistic one to conform is to merge oneself with the morally insipid, egoistic, and selfish mass. Yet from another perspective, Violet defends conformism. In a discussion with her three dorm-mates about romantic clichés, Violet confesses that, “I love clichés and hackneyed expressions of every kind.” She reasons that, after all, “They’re largely true.” Moreover: “The hundreds, perhaps thousands of such clichés and hackneyed expressions our language has bequeathed to us are, in fact, a treasure-trove of human insight and understanding… During these formative college years we should try to learn as many hackneyed thoughts and expressions as possible.”
The two kinds of conformism differ starkly from one another. Most especially, Violet’s conformism has a traditional cast: It looks to the past, and to “human insight and understanding,” from which the metastatic narcissism stupidly seeks a divorce. Indeed, Violet’s theory of clichés and hackneyed phrase resembles nothing more than Plato’s theory of right opinion. That resemblance should not come as a surprise. It is consistent with Stillman’s interest in beauty, his view of which likewise runs to the Platonic. Both Violet in Damsels and Ted in Barcelona experience in the cosmetic beauty of the opposite sex the powerful disturbance in the soul provoked by Eros. The disturbance reaches deeply; it represents an urgent and frightening demand to participate in something transcendent. In its primary earthly manifestation, moreover, beauty bodies itself forth; it appears as carnality, and can strike the smitten as tempting him or her to the spiritual abasement of mere fornication. That would be a misinterpretation, as Plato taught, but it is a misinterpretation that is difficult for the novice to avoid. The initiation of novices into higher orders of awareness provides Damsels in Distress, like its precursor Barcelona, with another important theme.
Violet distinguishes herself from Lily, Rose, and Heather by the degree of her aspiration, just as all four of them together distinguish themselves from the rest of the student body at Stillman’s fictional Seven Oaks College. In absolute terms, Violet’s aspirations rank in a middle position, but in relation to her environment they possess a degree of altitude. Stillman represents that environment with considerable concern for its subscendent details. In an early scene, when Violet has recruited Lily and the four girls are returning to their dormitory, they encounter a sudden rush of slovenly male students storming the sidewalk. Rose falls into a swoon. Violet explains to Lily that Rose is subject to “nasal shock syndrome,” which the unwashed musk of the male rush has triggered. “Seven Oaks is notorious for its b-o,” Violet adds; “it was the last of the ‘Select Seven’ to go co-ed,” and in it “an atmosphere of male barbarism predominates – but we’re going to change all that.”
The stench of male sweat allowed to age is about as subscendent as it is possible to get. It is against this baseline of de-civilization that Violet’s hopes and plans must be measured. Violet tells Lily, “I know that people can have useful careers in many areas – government, law, finance… even education!” Violet, however, would like to exercise her talent in another direction: “I’d like to do something especially significant in my lifetime, the sort of thing that could change the course of human history – such as starting a new dance-craze.” Violet’s justification of her project is that a dance-craze would qualify as “something that could improve the lives of every person,” but much more importantly, of “every couple.” Violet’s reasoning unites the themes of Eros and civilization. Dance, after all, is a genre of artistic performance. As such, dance possesses a ritual character. Dance demands discipline, it encourages grace, and it draws the committed dancer toward an ideal of perfected movement.
Violet, in her role as volunteer leader of the Seven Oaks Suicide Prevention Center, has organized the clinically depressed, potentially suicidal students who come under her supervision to produce, for therapeutic purposes, a musical production involving tap dance and items from the Classic American Songbook. Violet is herself an enthusiastic tap-dancer although an awkward one. Damsels in Distress will find its way, in its last reel, quite logically and charmingly, to a double dance-finale, but of that – more to come later. As to Violet, her rebellion against vulgarity and low standards at Seven Oaks is by no means diminished, but rather is made all the more poignant and admirable, through Stillman’s measured but relentless revelation of her flaws, inconsistencies, and peccadilloes.
It emerges, for example, although subtly, that Violet is a casual – but not a malicious – liar. In one scene, about two-thirds of the way through the story, Stillman puts Violet in a classroom seminar led by Professor Black, as played by Taylor Nichols, whom the screenplay characterizes as “wise and elegant.” Black has presumably asked each of his students to work up a list of three important people who deserve admiration. Before Black calls on Violet, he queries another coed, who responds with the names of Madame Curie, Simone de Beauvoir, and, Margaret Sanger. Violet’s list could not be more different from her classmate’s list: “I would say: Rickard [sic] Strauss, Roderick Charleston, and Chubbert Checker.” Black knows who Richard Strauss is, but has never heard of Roderick Charleston and Chubbert Checker.
Violet replies, without batting an eye or hesitating for so much as a syllable: “Each one of these men started an international dance-craze – Rickard Strauss, the Waltz; Roderick Charleston, the Charleston, and Chubbert Checker, better known as ‘Chubby,’ the dance we know as the Twist.” Gerwig delivers with a guilelessness that accentuates its hilarious mélange of ignorance and mendacity. It was not “Rickard” Strauss – whose name correctly spelled, is Richard – but rather Johann Strauss Jr., who popularized the waltz. Then again there is no “Roderick Charleston”; and Chubby Checker was born Ernest Evans Checker. Despite its comic absurdity, Violet’s list stands in serious tension with the previous student’s list. Marie Curie is a genuinely admirable woman, and a contributor to scientific knowledge. Simone de Beauvoir, however, was a formulator of feminist ideology and an enabling mistress of that subscendent man Jean-Paul Sartre. Margaret Sanger organized Planned Parenthood to eradicate selected racial strains and stymie fertility through a combination of positive and negative eugenics. De Beauvoir and Sanger are heroines of the Left.
The classmate’s list thus represents a morally downwards or subscendent movement. It might be objected that Violet’s list only does the same, but Chubby Checker is in no way the equivalent of Margaret Sanger; his activity has harmed no one. If only we could return to the innocence of the Twist! A close viewing of Stillman’s film will catch Violet in two or three other white lies. (See below)
At one point in the story, Rose tells Lily about Violet’s childhood: She was orphaned at nine or ten; many neuroses afflicted her, and when she transferred to a private school where Rose was in her class, the other girls teased her ruthlessly because of her actual name – Emily Tweeter. Much earlier than this revelation, when Violet is expositing her theory of the inevitable narcissism of the “good-looking guy,” she adds that among his repellent attributes is that he has “never suffered.” Lily interrupts to ask, in defense, one supposes, of the chiseled chin, “Have we suffered?” Violet responds that she is not talking about us girls and that Lily’s comment is therefore irrelevant. Violet has indeed suffered. How goes it with Lily, Rose, and Heather?
Lily has transferred to Seven Oaks from her first, unnamed college. In various scenes Lily makes statements in passing that suggest her provenance to be a “Dry State” somewhere in the American South. As Violet candidly and rather rudely informs the boys of the D.U. House where her boyfriend Frank lives, Lily either “failed or was unhappy at her last school but we’re sure she is going to adapt beautifully here.” To “adapt beautifully,” is not an accidental, but a highly motivated phrase in context. An outsider, Lily is anomalous to the group in other ways. Stillman’s screenplay hints at a sexual past for Lily, not any kind of promiscuity, but having more experience than Violet, Rose, or Heather has; the story also directly implicates Lily in active sexuality, which it never does for Violet, Rose, or Heather although it puts all three in romantic situations. Tipton’s movements, as Lily, are erotic: She undulates while she walks; she pirouettes in flirty conversation with a college boy, and presents herself more boldly than her room mates. To sort out the film’s romances, it is necessary to introduce the male characters.
First comes Frank – Violet’s current crush, as the film begins. Stillman, rightly judging that the college-film genre might be poignant, has carefully and deliberately set out not to transform his characters into caricatures, as is the writerly and directorial tendency of the genre. (Think Animal House.) Under Stillman’s direction and in Metcalf’s performance, however, Frank edges rather close to parody. A brother of the D.U. Fraternity (Seven Oaks has Roman-letter societies rather than the usual Greek-letter ones) – Frank is non-intellectual to the point of moronism. He is a “doufus.” When Priss compliments him on his blue eyes, he tells her that his eyes have no color. If they were blue, he argues, everything would look blue to him. He can barely spell, he speaks goofily, and Stillman never shows him in a classroom. Frank has a house-brother, Thor, as played by Billy Magnussen, whose parents, wanting to brag about him, pushed him prematurely into the first grade. Missing pre-school and Kindergarten, Thor never learned the colors, a failure that becomes a running joke in the script. He too is a bit moronic. Yet Unlike Frank, Thor, who dresses in shirt-and-necktie, and is clean-cut, expresses an appetite for learning, even if he must begin with the colors.
Thor’s speech to Priss during her visit to the D.U. House is worth quoting in full because it contains something like an actual definition of learning:
I don’t know about you but I don’t think anyone should feel embarrassed about not knowing stuff. What’s embarrassing is pretending to know what you don’t – or putting other people down just because you think they don’t know as much as you. I’m happy to admit I’m completely ignorant. That’s why I’m here and plan to really hit the books. So, the next time you see me, I’ll know more than I do now. I’ll be older, but also wiser – or at least know more stuff. For me, that’s education.
Fred Packenstacker, as played by Adam Brody, is an “eighth-year education student,” whose inability to matriculate in a timely way embarrasses him into adopting a false persona as “Charlie,” an “Associate” of “Strategic Development Associates,” a firm, as he says, with an office in the same town as Seven Oaks. This way he hopes to disguise the fact that he is a superannuated undergraduate. Violet claims to have a cousin in “Strategic Development,” in Philadelphia, another one of her white lies. Fred first appears in a scene with Lily that takes place in a bar. Fred, as “Charlie,” sends a round of drinks to the table where Lily sits with two companions, a male graduate student and his girlfriend. Violet soon recognizes “Charlie” as a fellow student in her “Flit Lit” course (a study of the Dandy Tradition of novelistic writing) although he denies it. Violet tells her friends that she plans to stop cutting class in order that she might follow up her suspicion. Fred is intelligent and reads books. In connection with the “Flit Lit” course, the audience sees him, during a library study-date with Violet, reading Walter Pater’s Marius the Epicurean in the Penguin edition. Fred seems to be pulled two ways romantically – to Violet and to Lily.
Charlie has a counterpart, not exactly an antagonist, but an anti-type: Xavier, as played by Hugo Becker, a graduate student Xavier has had his rather predatory eye on Lily since the semester began. Despite his German name, Becker is French. He plays Xavier as – vaguely, but unspecifiedly – French. The adjective “predatory” justly applies to Xavier, who instantiates Violet’s worst predictions about “good-looking guys.” Xavier has one girlfriend already, Alice, as played by Meredith Hagner. He is clearly trying to set up a sexual ménage-à-trois with the two girls. Lily naively sees nothing amiss. Confessing to her suave seducer that she has never traveled, she is foolishly impressed by his foreignness, his knowledge, and his status as a graduate student. Alice, smarter than lily, drops Xavier, who quickly proceeds to consummate his desire for Lily physically. In the narrative structure of Stillman’s story, that consummation is the lowest point of subscendence and the moment of dramatic reversal.
Xavier claims to be a Cathar. Lily has, of course, never heard of the Cathars. As he maneuvers Lily to his couch, he disquisits concerning how, “Cathars dissent radically from Catholic teaching regarding procreative sex.” According to Xavier, “In the Cathar view the highest form of love-making avoids procreation entirely.” Lily thinks that Xavier means condoms, but Xavier replies that, “sex with condoms is just a parody of the procreative act.” He continues: “The standard, cliché, form of sexual intercourse is for the man to… approach the woman… from ‘the front.’ In Cathar love-making – which, I think you’ll find very fulfilling – it’s from the other side… It’ll be a new experience for you but one which I think you’ll find brings an inexpressible closeness.” The scene cuts to an exterior of the house where Xavier lives. It is early morning. Lily leaves the premises looking disheveled and awkward. Much later, when gossip about the encounter has spread, a minor character, Jimbo, who socializes with the damsels, sums up everyone’s judgment: “That’s terrible. What he obliged Lily to do.” (Jimbo is played by Jermaine Crawford.)
Stillman postpones the resolution of Lily’s sexual humblement to a much later scene, in a confrontation of sorts between Fred and Xavier. Meanwhile, viewers have learned something about Rose, on the one hand, and Heather, on the other. Rose has known Violet since childhood; like Violet, she inclines to telling white lies, one of which is her posh-sounding British accent. In fact, she is as American as Violet, but she spent six weeks in London recently and now argues that she is from London. “I was there,” she says; “and now I’m here,” so “I’m ‘from’ London.” Rose is nervous about men. She is always ready to detect what she calls “the playboy or operator type.” She wrongly accuses Fred of being such a type. He is not. As for Heather – she is the most self-effacing of the foursome, the least intellectual, and, by her own statement, the one who cares least about moral principles. It is appropriate that she ends up with Thor.
A number of crises have continued to build. The editor of the Daily Complainer – Seven Oaks’ student newspaper – has been campaigning to have the fraternities ejected from campus. The editor and his followers argue that fraternities are “elitist,” so of course they should be banned. Violet asks him whether he knows any of these elitists and rejoins his “no” with her argument that they are, in fact, morons and thus by definition cannot be elitists. In a Spring Outdoor Fraternity Festival called “Roman Holidays,” which celebrates “Beerus, Bacchus, and Blotto,” the fraternities behave so drunkenly and crassly that the administration caves in and proscribes them. The D.U. boys, including Frank, take up temporary residence in the Suicide Prevention Center. The damsels have sided charitably with the actual injured parties.
Having earlier in the story caught Frank in a make-out session with Priss, at the D.U. House, Violet suffers a belated breakdown and leaves campus to spend a day in the nearby town of Villafranca in a cheap room at “Motel 4.” There, she discovers a perfumed soap whose scent revives her. Returning to Seven Oaks, she shares the “Wonder Bar” with her roommates and they conceive the idea of mailing a sample of it to every resident of Doar Dorm, the residence hall where Seven Oaks’ noteworthy b-o problem is at its worst. Heather hopes that “Doar Dorm will become Dior Dorm.” Not quite – but after some confusion, the Doar dwellers actually use the soap to bathe and they begin to spruce up in other ways. The damsels have won a minor battle. Thor wins a battle, too: When a rainbow appears, he correctly names its colors! It is a true epiphany. Heather embraces him.
Spring signifying the end of the academic year, viewers learn from Rose that failing education majors are trying to commit suicide by jumping from Robertson Hall, the Ed School. Violet remarks, “But, it’s only two stories.” Rose replies, “Yes, I know, it’s terrible – not high enough to kill but high enough to maim, and particularly dangerous for anyone below.” There is a commotion in the soundtrack. Suddenly Stillman shows us one of these attempted suicides, when a demoralized oaf steps into the air and breaks his leg on landing. Rose comments, via a rhetorical question: “What concerns me is – if they can’t even destroy themselves, how are they going to teach America’s Youth?” About this time Fred confronts Xavier, whom Lily has now rejected. Xavier appears contrite and informs Fred that he no longer adheres to Catharism. In a brilliant usage of verbal displacement, Fred tells Xavier that while he usually refrains from criticizing anyone’s religion, he feels compelled to say that, “I could never take seriously a religion that worships on Tuesdays.” Xavier affirms that, as he is no longer a Cathar, he no longer “worships on Tuesdays.”
When Violet’s attempt to start a dance-craze turns into a fiasco (no one shows up), a great disappointment to her, Stillman provides the first item of his double dance-finale. Stillman lifts the first of these dance-episodes from the George Stevens’ 1937 RKO musical A Damsel in Distress, starring Fred Astaire and Joan Fontaine. First viewers see a rehearsal in the Suicide Prevention Center of the Damsel-in-Distress number “Things Are Looking Up,” based on a song by George Gershwin. Fred has been recruited by Violet to sing and dance the Astaire part, with Violet herself as the Fontaine substitute. When the music starts, the audience hears the original 1937 soundtrack for a few seconds, but a new recording supervenes performed apparently by Brody, singing the Astaire part. Stillman links the soundtrack splice with a visual splice – to the outdoors of the Seven Oaks campus. The men wear jackets and ties. The young women wear brilliantly colored dresses. Fred is paired with Violet, Lily with Xavier, Rose with “Freak,” a minor character, and Heather with Thor. Priss is there, too, dancing with Jimbo. Music and dance have reconciled differences.
Is it a fantasy – maybe Violet’s wishful vision, her Platonic ideal, of how things should be, or does it reflect the film’s internal reality? The “Things are Looking Up” number is consistent with the rest of the film in several ways. With Xavier repentant and Lily reconciling with him, as it appears, Fred is free to associate himself once again with Violet, to whom it is clear he feels attracted, and who seems to have gotten over Frank, at last. A line from the parlando lead-in to Astaire’s performance of “Things Are Looking Up” in A Damsel in Distress provides a clue for interpreting Stillman’s lift from that film and for deciphering Violet’s psychological state. Just before the routine begins, Astaire explains to Fontaine that he is a changed man, having, earlier, literally been slapped by her in response to his presumptions and arrogance. She was not rejecting him, however; she was correcting him. Apparently, as Astaire says, “Slapping me made you love me.” Slapping, at any rate, by correcting him, made him lovable. Fontaine says, “Yes,” and Astaire rejoins with, “Darling, slap me again.”
Violet has suffered many slaps, but has interpreted them wrongly, as aimed by Fate or Providence especially and unjustly at her, and then accepting her misery in a passive way, as though there was nothing to do about it. The accurate interpretation of the many slaps, however, is that they represent instances of grace, and that, far from being arbitrarily punitive, they are corrective. Violet should know this because she herself has articulated the proposition earlier in the story, in responding to a rebuke by Lily for being arrogant and self-righteous. On that occasion, Violet says: “It’s terrible how I’ve acted,” and she expresses her embarrassment. She continues: “We’re all Christians – or, I should say ‘Judeo-Christians’: humility should be our watchword, the essence of being a good person.” Violet understands the principle of correction, but has not really internalized it, until the end of the film.
The essentially comedic paring up in the song-and-dance signifies at once Violet’s accession to a new level of maturity, to reach which she has had to recognize Fred as an intellectual equal, rather than a “doufus,” like Frank, the type of boy to whom she has previously assigned herself, with disastrous results. Because Violet, despite her deficiencies, has been the de facto leader of her group – not only the foursome in which she is one, but those who come into the orbit of the foursome – her resolve and her acceptance bring them along with her. After the experience of grace comes the experience of communion. Viewers even get a brief glimpse of the Doar Dorm men, now sporting shirts and ties and noticeably cleaned up, adding their chorus to the refrain:
Things are looking up
It’s a great little world we live in
Oh I’m happy as a pup
Since love looked up at me.
Damsels in Distress is a study of the prevailing subscendence. The directionality of Gershwin’s refrain, and of the song as a whole, is up; that is to say, pointing to transcendence. The choreographic beauty of the scene, including the natty jackets and ties of the men and the colorful dresses of the women, belongs to the ideal to which the young people may now properly attune their lives. It is meaningful that, during the film, the audience almost never sees any adults, with the exception of two professors. Now, however, the audience at last sees adults, or at least hopefully incipient adults who still partake in the cosmetic beauty of their adolescence. In the last frame of “Things are Looking Up,” Violet and Fred are dancing on water, bathed in sunlight. Stillman now offers his second finale.
The second finale is another dance number – “The Sambola.” The sequence opens with a close-up of Violet, who speaks directly to the audience: “Do the Sambola!” The Sambola is Violet’s hoped-for dance-craze. To its infectious, Caribbean rhythms, the well-dressed collegians dance – with the exception of Rose, who remains unwilling to commit to the celebration. She tells Jimbo that it “looks to me like just another Devil Dance.” She says, “I’m waiting for a dance of truth, and beauty, and righteousness – a dance that glorifies, not the body, but the Lord.” When “Freak’s” partner tires, he beckons Rose, who, after some hesitation, joins him and begins to dance beautifully. Marriage is a glorification of the Lord, after all: It is the Dance of Life. The reality of men and women, of love and procreation, also glorifies the Lord.
Even the subscendence of Damsels in Distress is idealized, if that were possible. Many features of actual college-campus life that are well-known to people who teach and associate with college students are missing from the Seven Oaks environment. Stillman permits no profanity into his script whereas actual college students, including young women, seem unable to utter more than two sentences without lacing one of them with f-bombs and s-bombs. Professor Black is serious – he does not seem to want to deconstruct anything or impose radical agendas on students. The professor of the “Flit Lit” course, part of whose lecture the audience hears, treats his subject with knowledge and seriousness, and he assigns Marius the Epicurean, which at least one student reads. Actual college students avoid reading with noticeable commitment. Seven Oaks students seem never to have acquired the cell phones and other beeping, flashing devices that perpetually distract and absorb actual college students, rendering them spiritless and autistic.
A few semesters ago, after screening Damsels in Distress for my Western Heritage class, I issued a challenge to the students to dress up, just for one day, as though they were participants in the story of Stillman’s film. I give the results below: