On a sunny afternoon in Minneapolis, the filmmaker Whit Stillman sits in the lobby of the W Minneapolis–The Foshay, resplendent in seersucker pants and a plaid sportcoat, looking as comfortable as a well-bred American male can be in the face of such barbarisms as rock ’n’ roll (“If you can’t dance to it, you don’t want to know about it,” one of his characters says in his second film), casual sex (even the casual sex isn’t casual in Stillman’s films, fraught as it is with hopes for a more spiritual union), and acid-washed jeans (I’d hesitate to inform Stillman what sort of jeans men are wearing these days). God, we’ve missed Whit Stillman.
Fourteen years after The Last Days of Disco, I had imagined that Stillman was done, that he had poured all of his observations on love, social relations, and the relative beneficence of preppies and patricians into that movie and his two earlier indie classics, Barcelona (1994) and Metropolitan (1990). Turns out, his projects were simply crashing on the rocks of creative differences—until now.
Damsels in Distress, which opens at the Lagoon Cinema on Friday, picks up more or less where Stillman left off. A cadre of noble young women at an ivy-draped college sets out to civilize a campus dominated by dim-witted, smelly fraternity jocks— a witty indictment of “cool” and perhaps the most literal manifestation yet of Stillman’s own artistic intentions. Though the direction is uneven, and the plot slows and speeds awkwardly at times, the dialogue is never less than luminous and clever and rarely ironic—a comedic breath of fresh air. Line for line, it’s the most thoughtful, literate, painfully observant comedy of the year.
In contrast to Stillman’s own views, one character holds forth: “Uniqueness, eccentricity, independence. 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.”
Stillman, as it happens, talks much like one of his characters—observantly, in elegant clauses—and tends to ask as many questions as he gets. When we meet, he presses the soundtrack CD for the film into my hands: a jaunty, retro score by his longtime composer, Mark Suozzo, and Adam Schlesinger of the indie rockers Fountains of Wayne, including what Stillman only half-kiddingly hopes will become the next big dance craze, the Sambola.
The closest I think you’ve come to having rock music in your films is disco, which punk rock set out to obliterate, so maybe it doesn’t count. Do you listen to rock music at all?
Not if I can help it. I liked pop music and started listening to music a lot in ’65, soul on the one hand the girl groups on the other: I adored the Phil Spector sound. When I went to college, though, it was mysterious to me: the music I liked disappeared from the radio. Later, I realized that the stations I listened to had dropped soul music. It was still existing and good, they just weren’t playing it.
It’s been said that you couldn’t possibly be an apologist for the Town & Country set because your characters aren’t derived from any reality we know of. And yet the girls in Damsels are based, in fact, in reality.
I’m not sure that statement about me is correct. The reality of my characters is very recognizable to me.
Fair enough. And you had heard a true story of a group of girls who stepped out at their college to bring a little more flair and dignity to the environment, no?
Yeah, there was a group of girls who electrified a college campus that was very dour and unpleasant.
Your characters often have the trappings of success, the manners, the clothes—but they’re not often very successful themselves.
Disco and Damsels focus on female characters. Is it easier to talk about moral imperatives through women than men?
I find it more interesting to write. The romantic predicament of women is more interesting to me. The guy point of view is kind of hubba-hubba-hubba. I know where they’re coming from, but it’s not fascinating to me. The romantic predicament of women is more sympathetic because ostensibly they’re not in direct, overt control of all their choices and all their relationships, but I think they generally do have ways of controlling their environment and modulating men’s interest, either stimulating or turning down.
I happen to be reading a book, simply called The French, from 1969, that asserts that French women developed their famously flirtatious persona as a reaction to the fact that they virtually no political power well into the mid-20thcentury.
Are you dating a French girl?
Have you been to France?
Only for a week. I had the usual experience of people telling me there were no hotel rooms available when there clearly were, of course.
It takes a while to pick up the vibes. They have an arcane politeness that’s actually quite lovely once you get the hang of it.
So we’re offending them in ways we don’t even realize.
The line in Damsels about eccentrics about being a pain in the neck…
In the Times it made it sound like I actually identified with that statement. I don’t at all. Sometimes I think the factchecking process seems to subvert truth. People love, for example, to say that Digby Baltzell [Stillman’s godfather] didn’t coin the term WASP. And I think what happened was, someone said, “As Digby said in his 1964 book, The Protestant Establishment, creating the word WASP,” and someone else says, well, wait, I heard about it earlier, so they assume he didn’t coin it. The thing is, he didn’t introduce the term in his book, he first did it in the 1930s. The press gets something wrong and then everyone else extrapolates.
So you’re pro-eccentric?
There can be good eccentrics and bad eccentrics. The thing I don’t like are cool people.