Can Tap Dancing Save Your Life? Whit Stillman On The Retro-Utopia of Damsels in Distress

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by Caryn James
April 6, 2012 9:00 AM
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Once glance at Damsels in Distress reminds you that Whit Stillman is a true original. This delicious, sharp, sometimes daffy film give us a benign coven of flower-named college students - Violet, Lily, Rose and Heather – in a story that is technically set in the present but actually exists in a pastel-colored throwback to an earlier era when even students were well-dressed and polite (except for those clods at the Roman-letter, rather than Greek,  fraternity; one of them can’t even name colors, but that’s what higher education is for).

The film is sly and witty, with a substantial theme beneath its frothy, stylized surface. Nothing is quite what it seems at first. Damsels in Distress is a story of reinvention, with the characters eager to assume new identities and even, in the case of Violet (Great Gerwig). change the world by creating a new dance craze. (The film has a couple of musical numbers that seem perfectly apropos.) On a less global scale, the group tries to prevent campus suicides by giving depressed students donuts and teachng them to tap dance.  

Stillman – who of course made his first splash a couple of decades ago with another, very different film about college-age characters, Metropolitan - covers a lot of ground in our brief video chat, including what he calls the “retro-utopia” his characters try to create, the importance of Gatsby-like reinvention, and whether tap dancing can really save your life.  

Video edited by TAYLOR LEVY.

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