Category Archive '“Damsels in Distress” (2011)'

19 Mar 2012

Whit Stillman is Back

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After 12 years of silence, Whit Stillman, to young American haute bourgeoisie what Akira Kurosawa was to ronin samurai, has returned to feature film directing. Damsels in Distress, theoretically released in 2011 in order to qualify for various cinema awards is about to start showing in the theaters.

The New York Times‘ description sounds exactly like a Whit Stillman flick.

“Damsels in Distress” follows four college girls, Heather, Lily, Rose and Violet, as they grapple with problems ranging from love troubles to toxic frat-house odors and suicide attempts by education majors who insist on throwing themselves off two-story buildings. (“If they can’t even destroy themselves, how are they going to teach America’s youth?” Rose asks.) The students at Seven Oaks, the fictional college, have a lot in common with the preppies and patricians of “Metropolitan” (1990), “Barcelona” (1994) and “The Last Days of Disco” (1998), the autobiographical trilogy that prompted reviewers to call Stillman “the WASP Woody Allen” and “the Dickens of people with too much inner life.” They grope for direction but are seldom lost for words, and beneath their barmy crotchets and pretentious dissertations there’s heartache and yearning. Stillman is the knight-errant of sneered-at bourgeois values. He extols the overlooked merits of convention and the hidden virtues of the status quo. Inveighing against “cool people” and the social cachet of “uniqueness, eccentricity, independence,” the transfer student Lily asks: “Does the world really want or need more of such traits? Aren’t such people usually terrible pains in the neck? What the world needs to work properly is a large mass of normal people — I’d like to be one those.”


15 Nov 2010

Whit Stillman Shooting New Film

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Whit Stillman

If Whit Stillman were a blogger, I believe he’d be a contributor at Maggie’s Farm.

Ivy League conservatives rejoiced twenty years ago when Metropolitan opened in the art houses. Here, at last, was a directorial voice speaking for us, someone sharing our appreciation for the surviving remnants of the belle monde, a sophisticated storyteller focused on the lifestyles of urban haute bourgeoisie of old family and private school background, recounting the minor scale epics and tragedies of the younger part of Upper East Side society with rueful and self-deprecating wit.

He moved location, in his second film Barcelona, exposing his American Innocents Abroad to deeply-entrenched-in-European-culture Anti-American prejudices, and seemed to be proceeding from strength to strength artistically.

But then, in 1998, came Last Days of Disco. Whit Stillman’s cynical, frivolous, and preppified personal world view somehow successfully crossed political and social barriers to appeal to a broad-based audience in his first two films, but Last Days of Disco seemed overly subjective and repelled audiences. No one in the late 1990s, other than Stillman it seems, lamented the passing of the Disco music era (most people were happy to participate in Disco record bonfires) or the demise of Studio 54.

The negative reception received by Last Days caused its director to vanish for twelve years, but as Mara Altman learns in an interview with Stillman appearing in First Things, rejoicing is in order. Whit Stillman is currently shooting another film due to be released next year.

[W]hen Disco didn’t earn the accolades Stillman had come to expect, he decided to retreat from New York, his wife, two daughters, and wounded feelings in tow.

Mostly, though, Stillman just wanted to live somewhere cheaper. But he also had another problem: His trunk was empty. To him, a trunk means a body of material or manuscripts that a writer keeps around and, over time, can come back to rewrite and reconceive. He took his first stab at Barcelona in 1983. It took more than ten years and multiple rewrites before it hit the screen. “After I finished Disco, I had no trunk,” he says. “Since then, I have been recreating my trunk.” …

[T]he wait is almost over. Under the cloak of secrecy, Stillman has at last returned to the role of director. He has just finished shooting his first movie in twelve years, on the streets of New York, his home again after several years of self-imposed European exile. Its working title is Damsels in Distress, and it’s about a group of perfume-obsessed college girls—some suffer from nasal-shock syndrome at the faintest sniff of B.O.—who run a suicide-prevention center. Stillman has raised the money and written the script, which has a honed Whitonian perspective and Whit-icisms galore. And although the film offers the possibility of a cameo appearance by Stillman staple Chris Eigeman, who has appeared in all three of his movies, it will not make a quadrilogy of his trilogy. “This film is different,” Stillman says. “Completely different. Okay, not completely different, but it’s different.”

I didn’t think much of Last Days when I saw it the first few times, but recently one of the cable networks was playing it and replaying it for several weeks. I not only grew fonder of the film. I found myself watching it over and over without tiring of it. Several individual performances, particularly Kate Beckinsale’s, inspired admiration, and the cad’s wronging of the sweet and intelligent Alice (Chloë Sevigny) increasingly moved this viewer.

Let’s hope that the years in exile have refilled the Stillman steamer trunk to overflowing, and that Damsels in Distress marks the beginning of a long and productive second career stage. Whit Stillman working in Dunkin’ Doughnuts. Whit Stillman frequenting diners. That just isn’t right. Hopefully Damsels will be a hit, and his Cobb Salads will be henceforward ordered in the Harvard Club.

Hat tip to Susan Vigilante via Walter Olson.

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