Stillman Goes Back to School

By Jones, Malcolm | Newsweek, April 9, 2012 | Go to article overview

Stillman Goes Back to School


Jones, Malcolm, Newsweek


Byline: Malcolm Jones

Students tap dance and tout idealism in 'Damsels in Distress.'

It would be easy on first meeting filmmaker Whit Stillman to wonder if he's one of those curious humans who habitually refer to themselves in the first person plural. An awful lot of his sentences are filled with such phrases as "We were trying?.?.?." or "We were surprised to find?.?.?." So it is gratifying, as the conversation rolls along, to discover that when he employs the royal we, there's nothing royal about it. He really is speaking as someone who never forgets that movies, even the idiosyncratic films of a lone-wolf writer-director-producer that only Whit Stillman could make, are collaborative efforts.

Check the credits in any of his movies: Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco. Traditionally the director gets his or her name on the screen all by itself when the credits roll. Stillman, in contrast, has always insisted on sharing the screen with his crew members.

"I felt that I was going to get loads of credit for the films," he says while nursing an espresso at a Manhattan coffee shop one bright March morning, explaining that the practice of shared credit goes back to his first film, Metropolitan, in 1990. "I felt just enormously close to the cinematographer and the editor and really felt they should share. I owed them such a debt."

A different side of his generosity is revealed in his latest film--his first in 12 years--the big-hearted Damsels in Distress, a musical comedy of manners set on a college campus. Stillman's trademark is making movies that slyly connive to make you sympathize with--or at least see the humanity in--people who at first might seem less than engaging: cosseted children of rich, callow American imperialists abroad, and dance-club yuppies. In Damsels, out April 5, he threatens to make you fall in love with an entire student body.

"The idea came from a group of girls I'd heard about who were at Harvard after I was there," says Stillman, a boyish 60 who looks like he still buys his clothes at some campus men's shop (boat shoes, wrinkled white cotton shirt under a broken-in houndstooth sportcoat that could use a mend in the right elbow). "I went back and heard about these girls who sought to revolutionize social life in their set. Everyone thought they were cool. It was very, very grungy when I was there, very political, very depressing. These girls dressed up, wore strong French perfumes, had parties. Everyone had a good time."

From that germ of an idea, Stillman crafted a screenplay that revolves around three young women determined to bring a modicum of decency and dignity to campus life. Their principal mission is the Suicide Prevention Center, where with coffee, doughnuts, and dancing lessons, they hope to banish despair, bad outfits, and, were it only in their power, the cretinous male body odor so pervasive in certain dorms that it sends the girls, armed only with their passion for perfume, into a swoon.

In the film's first scene this do-gooding trio spies Lily, a transfer student, on opening day. Taking her under their collective wing, they invite her to share their dorm suite, wear their clothes and volunteer at the suicide center. They're all about "trying to make a difference in people's lives. And one way to do that is to prevent them from killing themselves," Violet, the group's ringleader, explains to Lily. "Have you ever heard the expression, 'Prevention is 9/10ths the cure'? Well, in the case of suicide, it's actually 10/10ths."

At first, you can't help but wonder if you're watching some sort of East Coast, dusty-money version of Clueless or Mean Girls, but the story quickly veers from that template. These girls aren't evil or especially class conscious. They're even charitable toward the knuckle-dragging frat boys they date, reserving their scorn for the self-satisfied student newspaper editor who mocks their highmindedness. …

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