I don’t have a theory about “Damsels in Distress,” Whit Stillman’s new movie. The movie is so light and lissome that any theorizing seems much too bulky.
But it is a satire, and a terrific, effective one. Although it takes place in what might seem to be a rarefied and protected world, an elite and pretty college campus–and although the movie’s darkest hints and themes are all resolved through absurdity, as when would-be suicides habitually choose to jump off a campus building which is much too low to do more than break an ankle–the “damsels” feel more contemporary and more embedded in today’s sordid struggles than the characters in “Metropolitan.” (That’s the only other Stillman movie I’ve seen, his first, and the differences stood out to me pretty sharply.) Violet and her determined pack of ingenues move through the world of the “end of men,” the “mancession,” the endless adolescence of the drifting American male. They live in a culture in which men are made stupider but not happier. (In this respect the movie could be considered an anti-“Girls,” responding to some of the same pressures in a completely different way.)
There are all kinds of little joys in “Damsels.” Violet’s speech in favor of cliche, the way she and her friends turn even their cattiest impulses into opportunities for self- and other-improvement, the way the guys around them intellectualize their crudeness. The costume choices are hugely fun, and Greta Gerwig as Violet is a poignant, silly, lovable creation.
I saw this on its last night in DC theaters, so I’m not sure when it will be available where you are. But it really is a delight: a challenge in the form of a self-deprecating joke.