It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
It's delightful and a little bewildering to find a 2012 comedy that evokes a world that exists only in the novels of P.G. Wodehouse. Whit Stillman's "Damsels in Distress" creates Seven Oaks College, a school so innocent and naive that only it could believe in itself. Its heroine, Violet Wister, is one of the daffiest characters in recent movies, who believes one of the noble callings of women is to date men who are their inferiors, and thus lift them up.
All of the men at Seven Oaks are Violet's inferiors, and this also holds true for her sidekicks. Violet (Greta Gerwig) is one of those tall, blond, efficient style setters who sweep down the hallways of school comedies, scattering instruction and snobbery. Alicia Silverstone used to play these roles. Or think of Cybill Shepherd. The difference is, Violet's motives are charitable. She would like to instruct male undergraduates about the delights of underarm deodrorants, enlist them in a new dance craze of her own invention, and be of use to them, if necessary, at the suicide prevention center run by herself and her girlfriends. When you walk through the door looking suicidal, the first thing the center does is offer you a doughnut — but you should see with what alacrity Violet snatches a doughnut back from a pretender.
"Damsels in Distress" is the fourth film (and the first since 1998) by Whit Stillman, who as a younger man, looked like F. Scott Fitzgerald and spoke like someone who had learned the language through sophisticated comic novels. He made a kind of movie nobody else was making, about rich and privileged young people moving in the very best circles — which is to say, their own. He called them the "urban haute bourgeoisie." They consider "yuppie" a term of praise. His "Metropolitan" (1990), about a young man hoping to win acceptance from such snobs, was a considerable hit, in part because no one had seen a movie like it unless one possibly running in black and white at 3 a.m. on TCM. Then came "Barcelona" (1994) and "The Last Days of Disco" (1998). What they had in common is that the supporting cast of a Fred Astaire comedy could have wandered in and not been noticed.
My critic friend Peter Debruge writes me wondering if Stillman is channeling further back than Wodehouse: back to the days of Thackeray, the Dandy tradition and Vanity Fair. And indeed there's a bit of Becky Sharp in Violet. She probably likes novels where women are the arbiters of social circles.