March 22, 2012

Damsels in Distress

Damsels in Distress

In anybody else’s collegiate comedy, they”€™d be the mean girls, but Stillman makes them his heroines as they battle a campus suicide epidemic by teaching the lovelorn to tap dance: “€œHave you ever heard the expression, “€˜Prevention is nine-tenths the cure?”€™ Well, in the case of suicide, it’s actually ten-tenths.”€ Earnest, eccentric, and old-fashioned, Violet is as intensely opinionated as only young people without much experience can be. Yet she also has a little of Stillman’s self-aware sadness.

Stillman’s perspective is a cross between Jane Austen’s level-headed moralism and the absurdism of Lewis Carroll  and Oscar Wilde, who delighted in elaborate manners as almost abstract works of art. Stillman was married for 22 years and has two daughters. But as with two other high-class conservative icons, Evelyn Waugh and William F. Buckley, his canon can seem a bit, well, gay. A boy in whom Violet is interested explains to her that his term paper for their English class, “€œFlit Lit: The Dandy in Literature,”€ is about the decline of decadence:

Before, homosexuality was something refined, hidden, sublimated, aspiring to the highest forms of expression and often achieving them. Now it just seems to be a lot of muscle-bound morons running around in T-shirts.

When a worried Violet asks, “€œAre you gay?”€ he replies, “€œNot especially, but in another era, it would have had more appeal. Now, I just don”€™t see the point.”€

While not quite as delightful as Woody’s Midnight in Paris, Stillman’s first movie since 1998 is better than most of the thirteen films Allen has directed in the meantime. I liked it a lot, but it’s hard to convey the film’s tone. Fortunately, the two-minute trailer does a fine job of letting you figure out if this film is for you.

Why hadn”€™t Stillman made a movie in this century? Judging by how often his movies are about depression (or, as Violet explains, “€œI don”€™t like the word “€˜depressed.”€™ I prefer to say that I”€™m in a tailspin”€), perhaps he’s been a little blue. His theme from Metropolitan about WASPs losing their energy may have become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Moreover, obtaining financing for his various screenplays has been a problem since the failure of Disco, with its $8-million budget. (Damsels cost $3 million.) While Woody Allen has been helped through his long dry spells by investors who admire what he represents, rich WASPs would apparently never dream of investing in Whit Stillman movies as an expression of ethnic pride.



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