The Whit of 'Damsels in Distress'

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The Whit of 'Damsels in Distress'

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This is a poster for Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress. The poster art copyright is believed to belong …

I met director Whit Stillman during what I call his "dormant" period. There were more than a dozen years between his last film, "The Last Days of Disco," and his latest, "Damsels in Distress," being released this Friday. Before I knew him to be the director of "Barcelona" and "Metropolitan," I noticed Whit as that preppy guy, a little removed from everyone else, wearing a navy blazer and colorful Oxford shirt and slacks while most of those around him were dressed in jeans and t-shirts.

The filmmaker moves in one of the same social circles I do -- whenever he's away from New York or Paris and visiting L.A. We have a mutual friend who frequently holds what can best be described as "salons" of the European social variety, not the American hair variety. I've come to know Whit as someone you can always count on for a unique perspective on any subject that interests him.

And "Damsels in Distress" is certainly a unique perspective on something that seems to be a recurring theme in Whit's work: upscale youth attempting to define themselves. This time, he's focusing on a peculiar group of co-eds, prodigiously well-spoken lasses with flower names like Rose, Violet, Heather, and Lily, who run a suicide prevention center at a fictional East Coast liberal arts college.

In a brilliant casting move, he put Greta Gerwig ("Arthur," "Greenberg") in the lead. There probably aren't many other actresses out there who can wrap their lips around Whit's bizarre-yet-eloquent dialogue.

But the dialogue isn't the only bizarre aspect of this film. The plot and premise seem to inhabit a surreal, through-the-looking glass world with no actual foundation in period or place. It could be happening in the '50s or today.

I thought it might be loosely based on his own experiences at Harvard, but my sister-in-law, who actually attended Harvard with Whit and still keeps in touch, told me she didn't see many similarities. And yes, you can imagine how far our jaws fell when we were dining on the patio of a Sunset bistro and discovered we both knew Whit.

I wish I could say I thoroughly enjoyed "Damsels," and I can say that parts, especially in the beginning, are wickedly funny in a quirky, erudite sort of way. But as the movie meanders along, the word most people, myself included, use to describe it is "odd." "Indulgent" is another word that comes to mind.

For example, there are references to a French religious sect called the Cathars that apparently favors a particular sexual position, the details of which I'm told Whit was asked to cut. There are a lot of "huh?" moments in "Damsels." Among them are those quirky, singing and dancing musical numbers that finish the film, leaving you scratching your head and wondering, "did I miss something?"

But then again, this is exactly what I would expect from one who dresses preppy chic, sits slightly removed from everyone else, and gives his unique perspective on whatever interests him. I think it's just a little peek into Whit world; to dissect it too intricately would be to rob it of its charm.

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