The splendid new movie by Whit Stillman, Damsels in Distress, begins with a musical allusion to “Gaudeamus Igitur,” the medieval student song that formed a leading motif of Brahms’s “Academic Festival Overture” and is still sung in some European universities today. The song’s real name is De Brevitate Vitae and it begins like this:
Gaudeamus igitur, Iuvenes dum sumus; Post iucundam iuventutem, Post molestam senectutem Nos habebit humus.
[Let us therefore rejoice, While we are young; After our joyous youth, After an irksome old age, The earth will have us.]
You can hear Mario Lanza singing it, with male voice chorus, in a version from the 1954 movie of The Student Prince here. He and the boys only sing the first verse, but it is enough to remind us of the point of the word igitur, or “therefore.” Life is short, therefore we should rejoice — and youthful rejoicing gains both in joy and poignancy from a glance forward to life’s melancholy terminus.
Vita nostra brevis est, Brevi finietur; Venit mors velociter, Rapit nos atrociter; Nemini parcetur.
[Our life is brief And will shortly end; Death comes quickly, And cruelly seizes us; No one is spared.]
It’s helpful to keep these words in mind in order to gain some perspective on the film’s center of interest, the Suicide Prevention Center at fashionable Seven Oaks College, whose joyless clients are tempted to think life too long rather than too short. Their neuroses are ministered to there by Violet (Greta Gerwig) as the leader of a group of girls with high ideals about what the social life of young people should be, whose therapeutic methods consist of doughnuts and dancing. It’s not quite what those medieval students had in mind, I’m guessing, but the purpose is the same in the end. And the idea of iucundam iuventutem promulgated by Violet and her floral-themed companions Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Lily (Analeigh Tipton) is better suited to today’s co-ed campuses.
Mr. Stillman offered a similar note of musical perspective at the beginning of his first film, Metropolitan (1990), with a snatch of the Lutheran hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” — which, like that film’s packed church at Christmas-time, contrasted with the cold, dying (or, for his purposes, comically “doomed”) world outside it. Both allusions to a distant and ghostly past are meant, I take it, to place their respective films’ events in time at the end of a long process of Christian civilization for which Mr. Stillman and his fans (of which I am emphatically one) have a nostalgic attraction. Yet in both, as in his other two movies, Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998), he has always managed to keep in some kind of equilibrium feelings of sadness this side of despair at the passing away of that civilization — and especially the elegance and sophistication of its final phases — and optimism at the prospects for renewal of the same in some not altogether dissimilar form such as disco.
As Last Days was set at the sad end of an old dance craze, Damsels is set at the hopeful beginning of a new one, the one which it is Violet’s ambition to start with something called the Sambola, or “the devil’s dance.” If so, it’s an ironic sort of devil, as all the film’s devils are, more or less. Even Rick DeWolfe (Zach Woods), editor of the college newspaper (The Daily Complainer) and the guy set up to be either the principal villain or Violet’s improbable love interest, or both, simply fades from view after an initial, inconclusive confrontation with Violet and the girls. Perhaps he is dumbfounded by the girls and what Violet calls “a form of youth outreach” to the immature guys of Seven Oaks — guys who are said to be “crying out for help and guidance” to these exotic emissaries on behalf of unashamed femininity and an almost forgotten standard of chivalry and civilization.
For this is a campus where, as on most campuses these days, “an atmosphere of male barbarism predominates.” So at least we are told. But just as the devil is not very devilish, neither is the barbarism very barbaric. What we see of it at Seven Oaks is as fantastical as the female mission civilisatrice to eradicate it, and it occurs principally in the movie’s peripheral vision. For the most part, though they are much stupider than the girls, the boys are as well-behaved, and both are impossibly decorous by the standards of today’s college campuses, even though the film’s time period is meant to seem vaguely contemporary. The girls all wear party dresses, while the boys are all in jackets and some even wear ties, as they dance at a fraternity party amidst only moderate and strictly alcoholic revelry. Clearly, though there may be much work for the girls to do, their seed is not going to fall on barren ground.
Violet advises the others to emulate her in choosing as a boyfriend “someone frankly inferior to yourself,” and they don’t come much more inferior than her Frank (Ryan Metcalf) who, if more presentable than most of his real-life counterparts, is less articulate or mentally gifted. Another and one of the more tantalizing of Violet’s pronunciamentos is that “this obsession with intelligence” must be overcome, as “we can love someone without intelligence.” Frank and his fraternity brother (the fraternities at Seven Oaks are Roman rather than Greek letter houses) Thor (Billy Magnussen) are obvious examples of the lovably unintelligent, but they never quite succeed in dragging the frankly fantastical world of Seven Oaks back into the word as we know it in which girls like these really do face a growing disparity between male and female achievement to dim their marriage prospects. Perhaps this is for the best.
In promoting her international dance “craze” — the very word is redolent of a more innocent time — Violet’s purpose is not to win celebrity or riches for herself but to give the world’s youth something she believes they desperately need, which is a basis for social life and courtship that is positive and joyous and not self-destructive. When Frank lets Violet down, sending her into a “tailspin” — a term which she uses to distinguish herself from the depressive clients at the Suicide Prevention Center — she has to go away like a chivalric hero of old to rediscover her mission in the form of a bar of complimentary but sweet-smelling soap at a cheap motel. That she returns to love and dancing is as satisfying as it is inevitable. As Violet herself says: “I love clichés — because they are mostly true. They represent a treasure of human knowledge.”
The paradox is of course that this is anything but a clichéic thing for her — or anyone — to say. The movie’s clichés are likewise made fresh with constant surprise and delight. There are hints of a darker subtext as both Violet and Rose are said to be not who they seem to be, but it is hard to see self-invention as anything more than the logical culmination of the self-improvement that Violet is always striving for. When Lily points out that Violet’s charge of “arrogance” against Rick DeWolfe could also be applied to herself, she answers: “We are all flawed. Must that render us mute to the flaws of others?” Generally she is quick to agree with those pointing out her own flaws, which proves a disarming tactic to the other girls. Thus when Lily accuses her of being nosy, she replies: “I was being nosy. I have got to watch that.”
Such education as there is at Seven Oaks is mostly of this kind. Violet is interested in another boy, variously known as Charlie or Fred (Adam Brody), who likewise sees the learning process as more or less identical with the process of self-invention. And what better purpose, after all, could academic learning offer them? Charlie/Fred’s paper for “Flit Lit” or the “Dandyism in Literature” course taught by Professor Ryan (that old Stillman standby Taylor Nichols in an uncredited role) is on “The Decline of Decadence,” and some such title could also be applied to Damsels in Distress. It is a typically Stillmanian paradox, but it also holds out a perverse but hopeful prospect of renewal and rebirth arising out of the near despair to which young folks today so often seem to be pushed by the impoverished culture they have inherited from their elders. Oh, that it might be true!