Wistful return to pretty and preppy

Director Whit Stillman's comedy <i>Damsels in Distress</i>, about campus life and student depression, stars Greta Gerwig as Violet.
Director Whit Stillman's comedy Damsels in Distress, about campus life and student depression, stars Greta Gerwig as Violet.
Director Whit Stillman at work.

Director Whit Stillman at work.

IT'S BEEN an unconscionably long time between daiquiris for Whit Stillman, the upper-crust, Upper East Side director who, in the '90s, was to preppies and yuppies what Woody Allen is to Jewish neurotics. Stillman's trio of films - Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco - were sophisticated yet naive, stories of classy young people whose natural habitat was the party, but who spoke of books and each other in perfectly constructed sentences. Then, after The Last Days of Disco, nothing. Whit Stillman disappeared. Now, at 60, Stillman (pictured below) has made his fourth film.

Everyone who speaks to him at the Venice Film Festival, where the film is being launched - appropriately enough, given that this is the city both of perilous artificial constructions and masks - tells him how marvellous it is that he's back.

He agrees, not without bitterness.

''It wasn't my choice. A lot of things have to happen before a film goes forward and you always think it's about to happen with one person or another. I find it hard to explain, but I was starving. At one point I heard that George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London was up for an adaptation and I thought 'I'm actually living that book right now'.''

The film that has put him back on track is Damsels in Distress, an oddball campus comedy about a quartet of women - all of whom have floral names - who decide to combat student depression with the provision of free doughnuts, fragrant soap, a club called the Suicide Prevention Centre and, most importantly, the heavenly refreshment of tap-dancing.

Their leader is Violet, a glowing Greta Gerwig; she is also theorist and lead dancer. Damsels is set nominally in the present, but its mood is 1950s: the girls wear cardigans and hair clips; the focus of campus life is the fraternity house with its faux Grecian columns; and nobody appears to have a laptop.

''We tried not to show that,'' says Stillman.

''It's not visual at all. I get very tired of seeing movies where they have a screen in frame.'' What he likes is talk: over-articulated talk in precise, perfectly formed sentences. Words, he believes, are cinematic: he doesn't accept ''the visual fallacy'' that cinema is all about images. The dialogue in his new film is more artificial than ever.

''It's the main way I know how to write this kind of comedy,'' he says. ''I don't think that has changed much. The difference with this one was there was no attempt to make a naturalistic film here. The idea was consciously to make something that is our choice, our style, which complements Violet's determination to make a new version of her university life.''

All Stillman's films recall some period of the near past - his own experience on the 1969 debutante circuit in Metropolitan, Studio 54 in the '80s in The Last Days of Disco - that seems to glow with a little more glamour than the present. ''I definitely feel an attraction to other eras, but I don't want to live in them,'' he says.

''What I'd like to do is bring back the qualities of those eras - or to defend those qualities, because I think we sometimes don't give full shrift to how much of the past continues.''

Violet reminds him of the characters in Evelyn Waugh's social satires. Jane Austen is another of his touchstones.

One reason he has found it so hard to get films made, he thinks, is that people in the film industry ''like hard and gritty more than silly and pretty''. What he does do is establish a tone and then disrupt it; it is quite a surprise when the floral foursome have a pained discussion of one boyfriend's fixation on anal sex. ''I think there has to be a grain of sand in the oyster,'' smiles Stillman. ''And I think that is a good metaphor for the way many women - and maybe men - are coerced into doing things they don't really want to do.''

The overall tone, however, remains arch and a little wistful. ''All my films are utopian, visions of something more positive,'' says Stillman.

''I don't believe in a doctrine of realism in films. Cinema's not real; none of it is real and I think fake realism shows a lack of intelligence and a lack of truth.'' And, in fact, the public likes pretty.

The public enjoys his elaborate language and preppy characters.

''When the films get out, there's more support than the distributors expect.''

This story Wistful return to pretty and preppy first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.