A great misapprehension surrounds the four films of Whit Stillman: he is said to only be interested in the rich or super-rich. The dye was cast twenty-two years ago, when his first film, Metropolitan, was released. Because his debut was peopled by, as one character puts it, “standard New York social types,” Stillman was forever after to be known chiefly as a chronicler of what Kurt Vonnegut once called the “fabulously well-to-do.”
Yet Stillman’s subsequent films make clear that his WASPs are beset by economic crises big and small. In Barcelona, for example, the protagonist, Fred, agonizes over losing his job when a colleague he dislikes is made his superior, while no one in The Last Days of Disco seems to be able to count on reliable or steady employment. Indeed, the latter film ends with its glum-looking cast marching out of the state of New York’s Unemployment Insurance Center. It is obvious, then, that his characters are not defined by their trust funds alone. As Stillman himself said in a recent interview, “I wasn’t a trustafarian; I never had any money from the Stillman family.” (1)
Of course, since Metropolitan is set during a debutante season on the Upper East Side, the inattentive viewer would be forgiven for getting the wrong idea, and that film, particularly, is aglitter with references to people like Peter Duchin and Averell Harriman and stores like J. Press and Henri Bendel. Metropolitan trades in old-money glamour to such a degree that Stillman has confessed that he regards the film as a species of “social pornography” (2); in spite of itself, the film cannot help but show off the customs and the things of a most rarefied world. In 1990, it was the world of then-president George H.W. Bush. Yet the film turns on a “committed socialist” relinquishing his opposition to deb parties because he finds them such fun to go to. Stillman depicts this milieu so graciously, and with such generous helpings of wit, that you don’t have to be a “member of the G.O.P. or GOP” (as Cole Porter would sing) to wish to partake in it.
That last part is key. The heroine of Stillman’s latest film, Damsels in Distress, his first in fourteen years, comes from a checkered socio-economic background, but she wins the filmmaker’s (and our) admiration for aspiring to the finer things in life. Violet Wister (played by Greta Gerwig) is a pretty and opinionated undergraduate at Seven Oaks College who tasks herself, Martin Luther-like, with reforming the less desirable aspects of the campus, including its high suicide rate and ubiquitous filth. (She might have gotten her inspiration from Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” whose opening chords are heard at the start of Metropolitan.) More than once, Violet is accused of being arrogant and conceited, but she never expresses, in so many words, what is her best defense to that specious charge: in encouraging, for example, grungy fraternity members to clean themselves up, she is speaking from the position of someone who has remade her own life. More than most, Violet knows that Fitzgerald was profoundly mistaken: there are second acts in American life. Some ways into the film, we learn that her real name is not Violet Wister at all, but the much less lovely Emily Tweeter, and though she dresses like she hails from Lilly Pulitzer’s Palm Beach, she is really the orphaned daughter of starving artists from Oregon. She has learned her manners and mores from reading books by Firbank and Waugh, from which she derives her steady stream of truisms and “hackneyed expressions,” and watching movies starring Astaire and Rogers, from which she derives her love of tap dancing. We come to suspect that Rose (the wonderful Megalyn Echikunwoke, who almost steals the movie) is her best friend and chief cohort because she, too, is more of an imitation than the real thing. Rose speaks in a high-toned British accent, but it is revealed, in the penultimate scene, that, like Violet, she is from the Pacific Northwest. Her accent, it turns out, is the byproduct of a schoolgirl’s trip to London. She returned home sounding like a combination of Cathleen Nesbitt and the Queen Mother. Self-starters like Violet and Rose prove the point of Stillman’s godfather, the late sociologist E. Digby Baltzell, who felt that in the post-Vietnam era, it was a working-class soldier from Levittown, Pennsylvania, who “in Theodore Roosevelt’s or Lord Tennyson’s terms… had more real class than his age peers from Groton School or Harvard College” (who had avoided serving in the military). (3)
Carrying the memory of her former, inferior self with her, Violet sets about improving Seven Oaks without condescension. In Metropolitan, the stuck-up debutante Sally Fowler says, apparently without irony, “I can’t stand snobbery or snobbish attitudes of any kind,” but in Damsels in Distress, Violet really does subscribe to that class-free maxim. When we first meet Frank (Ryan Metcalf), the amiable half-wit Violet is going out with, it seems impossible that he will ever seem more than that to us. But Violet sees something in him, as do we, eventually. Their relationship gives rise to some of the sweetest moments in any American movie in recent memory, such as when she posits that in misspelling “jiff” as “giff,” he may simply have been spelling the word in a “non-standard” way or when she chastely refers to him as her “friend” rather than her “boyfriend.” (Violet is more influential than she perhaps realizes: at one point, her other good friend, Heather [Carrie MacLemore], asks an outsider who has joined their clique, “You don’t have any particular friend?”) The point is that Violet never holds herself above the likes of Frank; he may be empty-headed, but that’s exactly how she describes herself in conversation.
Among the student body of Seven Oaks, Violet is known best for running the Suicide Prevention Center. At first, the setting promises to be more comic than tragic. (A tiny subplot concerns the highly guarded supply of donuts that the center supplies its clientele.) The glorious surprise of Damsels in Distress is that Violet’s empathy for depressed students, and her resolve to help them, is among the film’s most deeply felt sentiments. Near the end of Stillman’s first, and so far only, novel, The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards, there is a remarkable digressive passage that reads, in part, “Sometimes, when we’re feeling low, small problems start to loom large and get confused with big problems, while impasses that might normally be ignored start to seem enormous.” (4) I have remembered that line ever since first reading it because its flat, slightly bewildered quality suggests it derives from personal experience; it makes me wonder if Stillman himself knows a thing or two about “feeling low.”
Violet certainly does. After being cheated on by Frank, she goes into a “tailspin,” as she calls it, packing up her things and disappearing from campus. Having hit bottom at a Motel 4 (a thriftier cousin of Motel 6, apparently), she gives herself a reason to go on: a thin bar of soap she finds in the hotel’s shower. She finds its smell entrancing, rejuvenating, which seems improbable were it not for the aching sincerity with which she announces the end to her depression: “This scent and this soap is what gives me hope.” Anyone who has ever suffered what Holly Golightly termed “the mean reds” will understand how, in such depths, the tiniest of things can provide encouragement, but for a line like that to really work requires an actor as guileless as Greta Gerwig. The part could have been disastrously miscast. Zooey Deschanel, with her awful petite knowingness, would have been incapable of projecting Violet’s big-hearted earnestness (recall Chris Eigeman’s comment in The Last Days of Disco: “The world needs more big personalities”), which is somehow emphasized by Gerwig’s large facial features. (In Woody Allen’s To Rome with Love, Gerwig’s sturdy bearing easily bests the dainty, silly Ellen Page, who is a romantic rival.) Besides her “wonder bar” of soap, Violet is committed to the restorative value of tap dancing, and when Gerwig says—determinedly, eyes narrowing—that “tap is a highly effective therapy,” we believe that she believes it.
The film ends, manically, with an honest-to-goodness musical number, set to the significantly titled “Things Are Looking Up.” For most of the film, we long for the staid, steadying influence of Stillman’s longtime cinematographer, John Thomas, but the dazzlingly bright colors of his new collaborator, Doug Emmett, splash across the screen in this merriest of movie finales, which seems to have sprung from Violet’s head like did Athena from Zeus’s. (It’s like the explosion of joy at the end of Disco, when the subway car riders dance along to The O’Jay’s “Love Train.”) We think, just as Violet has willed herself into becoming a paragon of common sense and uncommon style, she has willed the slovenly students of Seven Oaks, decked out in dresses and blazers, into singing and dancing to George and Ira Gershwin. Those of us who cherish Jacques Demy’s great musical The Young Girls of Rochefort will be reminded of it here; indeed, Jonathan Rosenbaum’s description of the earlier film as “Cartesian,” with Demy converting “I think, therefore I am” to “I dream, and dreaming is a part of life, therefore I live” (5), fits Damsels to a tee.
“Therefore I live.” When Violet is at her lowest point, she is given a remarkably sound practical reason to not kill herself (people who do never stick around to clean up the mess they leave, she is told). But the movie regards her decision to buck up and move on as an ethical imperative akin to the self-improvement that led Emily Tweeter to rechristen herself Violet Wister in the first place. When Rose says, with utter conviction, “The Lord gave us abilities and He requires that we use them. ‘Good.’ ‘Better.’ ‘Best.’ ‘Excelsior!’ ‘Higher!’ Only excellence can glorify the Lord,” she is not only explaining her refusal to abandon her faux British accent. She is also giving voice to the moral at the heart of Damsels in Distress: as another characters puts it, “Yes, we must improve ourselves.”
More and more, Whit Stillman’s movies speak to the dreams of those born without silver spoons.
- Chip Brown, “Whit Stillman and the Song of the Preppy,” The New York Times Magazine, March 18, 2012.
- Whit Stillman, commentary track, Metropolitan DVD (Criterion Collection, 2006).
- E. Digby Baltzell, Sporting Gentlemen: Men’s Tennis from the Age of Honor to the Cult of the Superstar (New York: The Free Press, 1995), pp. 385-387
- Whit Stillman, The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), p. 283.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Not the Same Old Song and Dance: The Young Girls of Rochefort,” in Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press), p. 227.