Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress (2011) & the Crisis of Subscendence

Damsels in Distress CD COVER

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.

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