Damsels in Distress, is such a frothy delight, too self-assured and solidly crafted, with too much subdued melancholy hiding underneath its surface, to really be as shallow as it looks to be, just seals the deal. It may lack the overt sociology of his last two Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, but by the same token it lacks their occasional self-consciousness, and it is certainly the most open and friendly of the four features in Stillman's canon; though there is something inherently brittle about his style even here, none of his films have such a loose, light soul, none are this much fun to watch, and as a result, none are so ready to give up their depths. It's probably not Stillman's "best" movie - the arch, tightly observed Metropolitan still has that sewn up - but it might well be his most readily watchable.
This has a lot to do with a new forgiveness of its characters - the leads in Damsels might be the most overtly broken and hypocritical in the director's canon, but one also gets the feeling that he like them the most - and even more to do with the chief damsel of them all, Violet Wister, played by reigning indie film muse Greta Gerwig in a lightning-in-a-bottle marriage of filmmaker with performer: Gerwig seems to instinctively get what Stillman is driving at with his unyielding stylised dialogue and bone-dry fripperies - to call them "quirks" is to suggest that Damsels is far more cute than is the case. Not even the director's two most important onscreen collaborators, Chris Eigeman and Taylor Nichols (the latter of whom puts in a small appearance here, possibly as his Metropolitan character, and is thus the only link between all four of Stillman's pictures), bring his words and his fussy concepts to life with such keenly-implied depth and complexity.
Violet is the leader of a tiny group of girls - they make an acquisition at the start of the film that turns them into a quartet - who run the suicide prevention center at the small and rather provincial Seven Oaks College (easy early sign to see if you're own the film's comic wavelength: the first time we see the building, part of the sign has fallen off, marking it out as as "Suicide Center". Violet fixes this with little comment). But this is merely the outermost tip of her what she calls officiously calls "youth outreach": paying social calls to the members of Seven Oaks' most socially outcast frat houses, or arranging tap-dance recitals so the morbidly depressed can have a creative output, or arranging a mass-mailing of nice-smelling soap because she found a particular brand whose scent lifted her spirits.
The twist, of course, is that Violet is as severely unhappy and broken as any of the people over whom she airly asserts intellectual and emotional authority. Where the film finds its genius is in refusing to telegraph this, or flag it, or use it as the excuse for a late-film Oscar clip where Violet tearily confesses her self-delusion. Instead, Stillman and Gerwig, who cannot in this regard be meaningfully considered as separate people, merely suggest and allude to Violet's real inner self either through unbelievable delicate acting, as simple a matter of how Gerwig holds her head and for how long she waits until reacting (typically not very long at all; and the moments when this quick-tongued chatterbox is momentarily thoughtful are thunderbolts), and by couching all of her most savage, self-negating impulses in the form of Stillman's typically arch dialogue. It's far too tempting to turn a review of his filmmaking into a review of his dialogue-writing, but that's such a key element in how he creates personality and the dementedly non-real world of young idealism that dominates all his films, but never more than this one. It is not Stillman's purposefully flat aesthetic that tells us who this woman is, but her curiously mechanical delivery of statements like these:
"I'm worried that you'll kill yourself and make yourself look bad."
"Fear of male barbarism predominates."
"He's lying. I find that very attractive."
"I don't really like the word 'depressed'. I prefer to say I'm in a tailspin."
The single pervasive fault of Damsels in Distress is that it functions so beautifully as a character study of the monumentally idiosyncratic Violet, that it doesn't necessarily do very much else: like all Stillman films, it's a rewarding depiction of an insular society that exists nowhere outside of the author's head, but given such detailed specificity that it eagerly invites us in rather than haughtily shuts us out, but unlike every other one of his movies, that openness doesn't translate into being a great ensemble piece: Violet is captivating and Gerwig gives a career-defining performance of the character, but none of the people she's surrounded by are remotely as sharply-defined or interesting. There are, certainly, other fine performances and characters - Megalyn Echikunwoke is a terribly fun as Violet's apparent second-in-command, Rose, who delivers the word "operator" in a clipped tone that is as funny as anything I've heard in a comedy in ages - but none of them register, and at least a couple of characters (mostly new girl Lily, played by Analeigh Tipton), come across as much more shrill and artificial than could possibly have been the case, allowing that the line separating deliberate from accidental artifice in a movie this stylised is a dangerously thin one to start.
In short, it's hard to care about Seven Oaks, or the suicide center, or any of the colorful people populating them, except insofar as they are extensions of Violet herself; and making things worse is that most of the plots from which she is furthest removed - Lily's weird new sexual relationship; fourth lead Heather's (Carrie MacLemore) new project, a boy who never learned to tell apart different colors - are so exaggerated in their absurdity as to cross right over into the indie movie quirkiness that Gerwig's flinty acting typically keeps clamped down. Damsels in Distress is as compulsively delightful as any movie I have seen in what feels like years, but it pointlessly limits itself in too many ways to feel like a new classic. Still, we have Stillman back, and if this is his "knocking the rust off" picture, I hope for something truly exciting waiting in the wings.