“Have you tried drinking?” Whit Stillman asks with a mellifluous nonchalance. Speaking by phone during a recent publicity tour stop in Washington, D.C., the question’s casual directness so discombobulates his interlocutor that the 60-year-old filmmaker repeats it with a soothing, cheap-seat simplicity. “Have you ever had a cocktail?”
The writer/director is talking about dancing, that comely mix of public silliness and rhythmic flirtation, that appears in every single one of his movies, and never more so than in his new Damsels in Distress, his first project in 14 years. While his 1990s triumvirate of urbane, neurotic WASPyness—1990’s Metropolitan, 1994’s Barcelona, and 1998’s Last Days of Disco—were rooted in personal experiences in the 1970s and 1980s, dance as a locus of life’s farcical dramas in miniature runs throughout his movies, articulated most amicably in Damsels.
Violet (Greta Gerwig), the loquacious queenpin to a coterie of coeds at the imaginary East Coast liberal arts college Seven Oaks, nurses her own idiosyncratic views on what makes life better. She advocates tap-dance therapy at the campus suicide-prevention center she manages. And she aspires to create an international dance craze—no, really: Stillman clarifies the full title of Violet’s creation is “The Sambola! International Dance Craze”—as a form of social good.
Stillman himself is an avowed dance fan, and when his interviewer mentions his own boorish combo of loving dance while fearing doing it, the writer/director immediately responds with that reliable social lubrication: booze.
The greasing of social gears is another Stillmanesque trait, his characters wittily chatting their way through beliefs, fears, casual notions, annoyances, sexual curiosity, interpersonal anomie—in short, what ties them into groups/couples as well as what pulls them apart. That investment in dialogue as a window into characters’ minds set him slightly apart in the 1990s mainstreaming of indie American cinema, though Stillman’s long absence from the movie house has revealed his influence on more recent fans of everyday literary storytelling such as Wes Anderson, Noah Baumbach, and those DIY filmmakers lazily lassoed as mumblecore. Damsels finds Stillman in an entertainingly farcical mood, as Violet and her friends—Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Heather (a comically spot-on Carrie MacLemore), and transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton)—contend with that omnipresent campus nightmare: boys. Violet initially seeks to partner with the more intellectually challenged Roman Letter guys (think: frat boys), but like Violet herself, not everybody on campus is who he/she initially appears to be.
“I think it’s a universal that college is a place for reinvention and rediscovery,” Gerwig says; she’s on the PR tour with Stillman. A veteran of DIY filmmaking force of nature Joe Swanberg’s productions, Gerwig brings a precocious complexity to her performance. Her Violet is a creation of constant consideration, her pauses and reactions as important as what she says. Gerwig went to Barnard College, and she knows that college is a place “where people have strong opinions and ideas and want to shape the world to what they felt was right.
“One of the things about Violet is that she’s a woman of ideas,” she continues. “I mean, that’s her lifeblood, these ideas that she has. When I read the script, I got these little hints of ideas that bubbled to the surface. And I just had a vague feeling that I thought she should walk a certain way. I thought she would wear her hair a certain way. I had an idea for what she would like or be interested in. I don’t even know if I totally used all my original ideas, but it doesn’t actually matter. If you have an impulse, you go with that even if it leads you somewhere else.”
Stillman appreciated Gerwig’s contributions, as not everything about Violet was on the page, in particular the walk. “I think she developed the sort of footsteps—the sort of Violet way of walking that expresses her way of leading the group,” he says, before turning away from the phone and asking Gerwig questions about the walk. “Small steps, right? A lot of little steps. Quick little steps but not too quick that we run out of track for our walk and talk. Everyone had to pretend to be moving quickly without actually moving.”
That’s an apt encapsulation of the movie’s character arcs as well. Damsels is filled with young people trying to figure out who they are, yet they’re still very early in life’s journey. That idea offsets the movie’s more fable-like elements—Seven Oaks is a campus where nobody uses social media much—with a touching, quotidian balance. Stillman’s frat boys, as reliable a one-dimensional movie punching bag as stoners and Nazis, start out cartoonish and become more recognizably and even tragically human. Damsels isn’t trying to say that bros are people too; it merely points out the obvious: that young people sometimes just don’t know much about life yet.
“They start out being the dumb frat boys of yore, but then they have sort of a touching quality,” Stillman says. “I think there’s something moving about people who want to be scholarly and study really hard but really have no equipment for doing so. You find it a lot in life.”
And at an institute of higher learning where one of the courses offered is “The Dandy in Literature,” Violet’s aspiring to the esteemed heights of the creators of the waltz, twist, and Charleston isn’t any more or less ridiculous than anything else. Why not the “Sambola!”?
“The naming is completely ersatz,” Stillman says of the movie’s, ahem, international dance craze. “The idea was that samba is a good dance and bolero is supposed to be a good dance but I don’t know how to do it. And it would sound like a dance called the ‘Sambola!’ And then when the choreographer, Justin Cerne, was thinking about creating it, we had a discussion and I said, ‘It would be really great to have a dance that included all the best dance moves from various different dances—kind of a greatest hits of dance moves, particularly those that involve moving and traveling and the couples working together and all that.’ So he came up with this series and he gave me a choreography credit. I’m very proud of that.”
Ergo, it’s perfectly natural for the dance-floor meek to seek the sage advice of a bona fide movie choreographer about dancing itself. So without further ado, Whit Stillman’s guide to dance: “You should learn a few steps,” Stillman says. “Learn a few steps and then add alcohol and you’ll be a dancer.”