Damsels in Distress is the sort of movie for which adverbs look silly. You know: “charmingly,” “perplexedly,” “oddly.” Since Last Days of Disco, Bill Clinton got impeached and writer-director Whit Stillman is five years shy of collecting a Social Security check, but his attention to hyperarticulate characters testing their moral codes against a perplexed universe has produced his most beguiling movie to date. Violet (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), moving through Seven Oaks college like versions of Mary McCarthy’s Vassar girls in The Group, recruit Lily (Analeigh Tipton) for their suicide prevention peer counseling team and for berating the fraternity system (a “Roman” system, as goonish Ryan Metcalf explains) with which the men have dominated social life for generations. Although some jokes don’t pop like you’d expect and the last twenty minutes are a haze of dance routines and poorly conceived resolutions (how can anyone find resolution here?), pace and blocking are less of a problem in Stillman’s fourth feature; he’s mastered the craft of depicting a milieu. Stillman doesn’t abandon the other women for the fascinating camera subject that’s Gerwig. Echikunwoke steals the movie with dry-as-gin line readings, while Tipton makes her miscasting work in her favor; she’s too infatuated with what Thomas Hardy would call the earthly pleasures, one of which involves a roll on the couch with a serious-as-a-deacon graduate student named Xavier (shouldn’t it be with a “J,” the characters wonder?). The seduction almost works: he plies her with wine and Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses (“It’s in color,” he reassures Lily) when his confession of Catharist tendencies doesn’t work.
If Xavier’s obsessions remind you of Jean-Louis Trintignant’s Jansenism in My Night at Maud‘s, it’s not the only frisson. With its pastel hues and ascetic air, it evokes Moonrise Kingdom without the fear and trembling, its dessication of feeling. In Stillman’s view, brittleness is a tease, a way to hint at hidden depths. It’s why he includes a scene in which an English professor praises the novels of Ronald Firbank. A glancing away from the articulation of sentiment defined Jean-Pierre Léaud’s work in Stolen Kisses too, and there’s something of this lightness in Adam Brody’s work as Charles, a po-faced con artist who claims to work for Strategic Development under the name of Fred. Thanks to crackerjack TV timing, the elfin Brody’s a snug fit in Stillman’s world, a worthy foil for Tipton and Gerwig. I’ve met a few guys like Charles around campus: well-connected young Republicans already doing “consulting” work or “networking” for international clientele.
But Damsels in Distress is Gerwig’s movie, and what a star turn: a conceit made sensual, thinking flesh; as improbable as the lady in Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock.” Ridiculous mini speeches like “During these formative college years, we should try to learn as many cliched and hackneyed expressions as possible. Furthermore, I think we will” she turns into manifestos without a hint of a wink. Gerwig is what a few of us thought Stillman would do with Metropolitan‘s Carolyn Farina: write a whole movie for Audrey Rouget, finding Lionel Trilling’s take on Mansfield Park wanting.