Just yearning for intelligent discourse: a review of Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress.
By Christopher S. Morrissey*| Catholic World Report |May 10, 2012
Pope Benedict XVI has observed that “Christianity, Catholicism, isn’t a collection of prohibitions: it’s a positive option. It’s very important that we look at it again because this idea has almost completely disappeared today. We’ve heard so much about what is not allowed that now it’s time to say: we have a positive idea to offer … I believe we need to see and reflect on the fact that it’s not a Catholic invention that man and woman are made for each other, so that humanity can go on living: all cultures know this.”
Whit Stillman’s new film, Damsels in Distress, offers one of the most positive film endings in recent memory. What most reviewers of the film have neglected to mention is how the film makes a subtle suggestion about authentic Catholicism as a positive, counter-cultural option in the face of dominant cultural trends.
The film’s virtuous heroine, Violet (Greta Gerwig), speaks a number of times about the need to be a good Christian. Most reviewers pass over this important aspect of her character in silence, no doubt for the same reasons that audiences have reportedly gasped out loud in horror at such declarations by Violet.
At first, Violet’s charming naivety seems to be played for laughs, as if she is simply a comic character with an amusing form of mental illness. But by the time the movie ends, the audience is challenged to ask themselves: Isn’t Violet’s crazy dream-world in fact preferable? Is hers not the most beautiful way of choosing to transfigure the real world? Isn’t it really the dominant culture—concretely symbolized by the movie’s decadent “Cathar” heretic, Xavier (Hugo Becker)—that is truly crazy?
The movie’s positive ending shows Violet as she sings and dances with her favorite man (The O.C.’s Adam Brody) along with the rest of the movie’s cast to the obscure Fred Astaire number, “Things Are Looking Up.” Over the closing credits, the audience is incited to start a new dance craze, the “Sambola!”—a clever rainbow-blend of “greatest hits” dance moves of Violet’s invention.
VIOLET: I know that people can have useful careers in many areas: Medicine. Law. Finance—
VIOLET: Yes, even education—but I’d like to do something especially significant in my lifetime, the sort of thing that changes the course of human history: such as start a new dance craze.
VIOLET: Yes. Something that might enhance the life of every one—and every couple.
At the beginning of the movie, Violet is shown defending the idea of a man ordering drinks from across the bar as a romantic gesture. It’s one of her best speeches in the movie, and while at the time it makes her seem absurd even to her own friends, it is clear that Stillman is refusing simply to ridicule her. Rather, in the context of Violet’s own pursuit of humility (at one point, she sincerely thanks Lily for a “chastisement”), even Violet’s silliest mistakes become endearing. Thus, in retrospect, from the vantage point of the film’s musical climax, her speech about a man ordering drinks for a woman seems meant to portray Violet and her cultural philosophy as the most appealing option on offer.
VIOLET: He was probably just yearning for some intelligent discourse. He could see that Alice and Lily are college students. College students are well-known for their interesting conversation. After all, they can talk about their courses. That’s probably what attracted him… His aspirations were perhaps even loftier—to court Lily, with a view to matrimony. We’re in the North, but occasionally a Southern gentleman will wander into these parts.
Violet is introduced to us as the zany leader of a trio of girls on the fictional Seven Oaks campus who welcome a newcomer, Lily (Analeigh Tipton). Lily functions as Violet’s foil, something especially highlighted when Lily is later on seduced by the “Cathar” Xavier. But prior to that, the girls enlist Lily as part of their efforts to improve the campus with a program of beautiful clothes, perfumed soap, and tap-dancing as suicide-prevention therapy.
Moronic and barbaric
The distress from which these damsels need to be rescued is nothing less than the rampant boorishness of contemporary culture. But because the frat-boy mentality of the campus militates against any chivalric rescue, the damsels take matters into their own hands and instead pursue Violet’s nostalgic dream of a better world.
RICK: You should know something about these girls—they run the “Suicide Center” where their preferred therapy for seriously depressed and suicidal people is…tap dancing. I kid you not.
VIOLET: Tap is a very effective therapy as well as a dazzlingly expressive dance form. It’s been sadly neglected for too many years.
RICK: It’s moronic and barbaric. You seriously expect tap dancing to solve these people’s problems?
VIOLET: No, we don’t—we’re using the whole range of musical dance numbers which over many years have proven themselves effective therapies for the suicidal and hopelessly depressed.
It’s the movie’s suicide-prevention theme that got me thinking the most. It seems to me that the real theme of the film is the suicide of the West, with Violet operating as Whit Stillman’s proxy for offering a “suicide-prevention” program for the West. In a telling line, Xavier alludes to Catharism (i.e., non-procreative sex) being more culturally widespread than people realize or care to acknowledge. (The fanatical ideology of the modern “Cathar” movement is nicely satirized in the film by Xavier’s indignation at a rival whose “Cathar” practices are virtually indistinguishable from his own.)
Stillman’s film nostalgically laments the absence of rudimentary knowledge about decorous intercourse between the sexes. As examples, it highlights romantic gestures—like ordering drinks from across the bar—or courtship—like asking someone out on a date or going dancing. The historic import of such a loss of manners is symbolized in the film by the behavior of the frat boys of the fictional Seven Oaks “Roman Letter” fraternities (such as “D.U.”) and the concomitant comic suggestion about how “Greek Letter” fraternities are thus in decline today (“D.U.” being the decadent substitute for “Delta Upsilon”).
The distress from which the damsels need to be rescued is nothing less than the rampant boorishness of contemporary culture.
All this I take as wry shorthand symbolizing the decline of the West. Hence it is in this symbolic context that Violet’s wacky program comes across as an eminently sane way to educate the masses in basic cultural hygiene. Just as Violet wants the frat boys to use fragrant soap so that the girls can be spared “nasal shock,” so too Stillman seems to be evoking the restoration of decorous formality, like dancing, as the best way for the West to prevent cultural suicide.
VIOLET: You probably think we’re frivolous, empty-headed, perfume-obsessed college coeds. You’re probably right. I often feel empty-headed… But we’re also trying to make a difference in people’s lives. And one way to do that is to prevent them from killing themselves… Have you ever heard the expression, “Prevention is nine-tenths the cure?” Well, in the case of suicide, it’s actually ten-tenths.
The grand dance finale of the film is preceded by the epiphany of the frat boy Thor (Billy Magnussen), wherein he is able to distinguish the colors of the rainbow for the first time. Earlier, Thor had been played for laughs as someone who had never learned how to identify primary colors. But it is his parents whom the film blames for his mis-education. And Stillman also has Thor make an eloquent appeal:
THOR: I don’t know about you but I don’t think anyone should feel embarrassed about not knowing stuff. What’s embarrassing is pretending to know what you don’t—or putting down other people just because you think they don’t know as much as you. I’m happy to admit I’m completely ignorant. That’s why I’m here and plan to really hit the books. The next time you see me, I’ll know more than I do now. I’ll be older, but also wiser—or at least know more stuff. For me, that’s education.
Stillman never condescends to any of his characters, even the types whom most people prefer to see as unlikable. Hence my suspicion that what Stillman is up to with Thor is not just broad comedy. Rather, Thor’s inability to distinguish primary colors is symbolic of today’s glaring lack of decorous relations between young men and women, whether in the form of dancing or courtship. I think most critics miss this symbolic dimension (which, in Thor’s instance, would amount to a cultural reclamation of the more quotidian “rainbow” symbolism), even though it is undeniably present (arguably as a deliberate product of Stillman’s literary sensitivities). But they miss it because Stillman steadfastly refuses to engage in conventional moralizing when it comes to his characters. Instead, in the most gentle of ways, Stillman makes his comically positive suggestions about how our culture could aspire to so much more. In a movie blissfully free of today’s all-too familiar F-bombs, he has Rose rant instead about the colloquial overuse of bland words like “fine” or “nice”:
ROSE: The Lord gave us abilities—he requires that we use them: “Good. Better. Best. Excelsior! Higher!” Only excellence can glorify the Lord. Vulgarity is, in essence, blasphemous.
In thus countering vulgarity and decadence, not with a hectoring moralism, but instead with his trademark wit and open-hearted humility, Stillman seems to be making the kind of positive appeal that aims to win over anyone’s better self. Stillman’s “positive option” is offered to a culture in decline, a culture that one of his characters observes has adopted only the crudest forms of “the Cathar way”:
VIOLET: Have you chosen a topic for your paper?
FRED: Uh, “The Decline of Decadence.”
VIOLET: You think decadence has declined?
FRED: Definitely. Big time. Major, major decline.
FRED: “How” or “in what ways”?
FRED: Okay, take the flit movement in literature, or homosexuality—
FRED: Homosexuality. It’s gone completely downhill. Right down the tubes. [He makes the sound: “Whchht.”]
FRED: Before, homosexuality was something refined, hidden, subliminated, aspiring to the highest forms of expression and often achieving them. Now it just seems to be a lot of muscle-bound morons running around in T-shirts.
[Violet looks a little shocked.]
FRED: It’s pretty disillusioning.
[Violet pauses in thought for a long moment]
VIOLET: Are you gay?
FRED: Not especially. But in another era, it would have had more appeal. Now, I just don’t see the point.
The point of the frat boy Thor’s rainbow epiphany would therefore seem to be that, thanks to something like Violet’s cultural education, he can now look at women with heightened perception. Reviewers have not failed to notice that the names of the film’s fragrant damsels are all the names of flowers. But are they not also colors? Stillman seemingly invites us to look at them, after being educated in Violet’s counter-cultural vision (as Thor has been), with a newly judicious eye.
Do we want to affirm Violet and her “international dance craze” or not? And what would that “international craze” be, other than the opposite of the Modernist heresy of decadent and barren boorishness that in this film goes by the name of “Catharism”? Would it not be the cultural fecundity of Violet’s own “Catholicism”?
Don’t get me wrong. It would be grossly unfair to mistake Stillman for a moralizing reactionary or religious apologist. Like Violet, Stillman himself refuses to be a “daily complainer” who would demonize or scapegoat anyone. That’s because he, like her, turns out to be a curious anachronism devoutly to be wished for: a humbly benevolent soul that, chasing rainbows, makes us smile, laugh, and dance.