Why ‘Damsels in Distress’ is not just another movie about college life

Emily Esfahani Smith Managing Editor, Defining Ideas
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On Tuesday night, I went to a screening of “Damsels in Distress,” a new movie written and directed by the conservative filmmaker Whit Stillman (the creative mind behind “Metropolitan,” “Barcelona,” and “The Last Days of Disco). “Damsels,” which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, is set for a limited release in New York City and Los Angeles on Good Friday, April 6 (you can watch the trailer here).

Stillman, a 1973 Harvard graduate whose godfather E. Digby Baltzell popularized the term “WASP,” has focused on the haute urban bourgeoisie — the upper-crust of America — in his past films. And “Damsels” is no different. The movie is about life at an elite college, Seven Oaks, where fraternities dominate the social scene (probably the school, with its East Coast location and Greek revival architecture, is modeled after one of the Ivy Leagues).

The film follows a clique of three girls — four, after they pull a transfer student in — who are relentless do-gooders that, in the end, get tripped up by a series of either moronic, or manipulative, or egotistical boys (“their distress”). Violet is the clique’s idealistic, stalky, and socially awkward leader. Rose is naive, ditzy, but sweet. Heather is sexy and straight-talking. And Lily, the transfer student, is a pretty normal American girl who kind of just lets things happen to her. So far, this has all of the ingredients of just another movie about college life, rather chick-flicky, and funny at times — but what makes it stand out is all of the twists of its plot, which covers a sprawling variety of themes, from the lovemaking rituals of the cultish Cathars, to the degeneracies of fraternity life, to the ins-and-outs of strategic dating (“Do you know what’s the major problem in contemporary social life?” asks Violet: “The tendency, very widespread, to always seek someone ‘cooler’ than yourself — always a stretch, often a big stretch. Why not instead find someone who’s frankly inferior?”).

Along these idiosyncratic lines, the main calling of the girls — I guess you could call it their extracurricular activity — is running the campus “suicide prevention center.” College life at Seven Oaks, we are told, is so demoralizing in its low-life grunginess that people are committing suicide left and right — literally: you see students jumping off the only two-story-high Robertson Hall, a desperate move that does not kill, but only maims, to paraphrase a horrified Heather.

So the girls have a mission. They want to revolutionize social life on campus, cheer everyone up, civilize them, and prevent lives from being needlessly taken. Here’s Violet, talking to Lily, about this:

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.

It would be pretty grim stuff were it not for the absurdity of the prevention strategy: promoting good hygiene — specifically, by distributing soap to the dorm rooms — and tap dancing, of all things. Violet is so inspired by the power of dancing to change lives that she sets out to start an international dance craze on the order of the Waltz, the Charleston, and the Twist, as she explains in one of my favorite moments of the film:

I know that people can have useful careers in many areas: Medicine. Law. Finance —

— Education —

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.


Yes. Something that might enhance the life of every one — and every couple.

If you haven’t been able to tell already, the film —- charming at times, yes — is basically one long inside-joke, a vehicle, it seems, for Stillman’s cultural-political commentaries. Like the education slight just above. Or when Lily, in conversation with her pseudo-intellectual and lecherous Cathars boyfriend, concludes, “Oh my god — the Catholic really are always bad.” Or when Violet, contemplating suicide herself after she walks in on her boyfriend with another girl, goes to a local diner and listens to the wisdom of a construction worker who says this of suicidal college students: “They leave quite a mess and they don’t stick around to clean it up.”

That last comment, on suicide, was another moment in the film that stood out to me. It was a flash of wisdom on a topic that had otherwise been treated a bit frivolously throughout the rest of the film.

In truth, it stuck because it reminded me of an experience I had my freshman year at Dartmouth College — quite possibly the model for Seven Oaks — in my springtime seminar, “Reading and Writing Short Stories.” The class had just finished reading J.D. Salinger’s story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” which ends in a traumatic suicide. While his wife is sleeping in their beachside hotel room, Seymour sits down on the bed next to hers and shoots himself in the head. So in class, we started discussing the suicide — why he did it, what we thought of it — and I remarked that I thought that what he did was incredibly selfish, which is the position I still hold. Think of his wife waking up and seeing him dead and bleeding on the floor, the horror of it; think of his parents, getting the news that their child has died; think of his friends and neighbors and everyone else in his life who ever liked or loved him, missing him — all this pain he will cause because he couldn’t bear to live. All these people in his life who need him, but no longer have him. Is it worth it? Then I said something about how suicide in general is, at bottom, a deeply selfish act.

So I said all that in class, and, as it turned out, I really upset one of the girls, a fellow freshman, down the seminar table from me. Obviously distraught, she cut me off and told me in a raised voice that I was wrong. Then she stormed out of the class — to cry, I think.

It’s an experience that I think about a lot, trying to sort it out — Was I wrong, to say what I did? Was she, to create that scene? Who in her life did she lose? And I thought about it again on Tuesday night, in the Madison Avenue screening room, watching Violet and her girls try to make life better for the depressed and suicidal, one whimsical tap-dance number at a time.

Emily Esfahani Smith is the managing editor of the Hoover journal Defining Ideas and associate editor of The New Criterion. She writes about pop culture at acculturated.com.

Emily Esfahani Smith