The cinematic poet laureate of young, urbane pretension, Whit Stillman has been threatening to make a "normal" movie for well over a decade now. He's been linked to various adaptations, period pieces and studio films since 1998's The Last Days of Disco. So it's nice to finally have him back with Damsels in Distress, a comedy about young women in college that sings with all the clipped, faux-literate idealism of Stillman's earlier films.
Here, Greta Gerwig plays Violet, the den leader of a group of beautiful, prim college students at (fictional — oh, dear God, how fictional) Seven Oaks University who have made it their mission in life to save fellow students from suicide. Their methods for doing so involve dancing and doughnuts and fragrant soaps. Their methods for saving themselves involve dating boys who are clearly not their equals.
This being a Stillman movie, theory and practice never quite jell. These women find themselves drawn precisely to the kind of self-indulgent men who will break their hearts, just as surely as the fragrant soaps they send to one of the more problematic dorms on campus wind up getting turned into Frisbees. Violet herself reels after a breakup with an apelike member of the opposite sex (Ryan Metcalf), while her protégé, Lily (Analeigh Tipton), pingpongs between a handsome player type (Adam Brody) and a creepy Frenchman (Hugo Becker).
But inner torment rarely breaks the film's placid surfaces. Stillman expresses emotional turmoil not via narrative indulgence but by odd, subtle breaks in routine — the difference between a woman leaving a man's house in the morning, say, and that same woman leaving a man's house in the middle of the night.
For all the talk of heartbreak and suicide, Damsels in Distress feels at times like a lighter, fizzier riff on Stillman's usual aesthetic. There are moments of comedy here way broader than anything he has attempted before. The men seem to be little more than comic relief, and their antics don't quite feel of a piece with the rest of the goings-on. Still, you haven't lived until you've seen Stillman characters break into an impromptu tap routine. When the frivolity fits, there's magic to it.