WHIT STILLMAN ON SCENT & SHOWGIRLS by Farran Smith Nehme
Whit Stillman’s name doesn’t usually crop up in discussions of directorial daring, but it should. In the 1990s he crafted three movies–Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco–that were notable for their defiant emphasis on matters few other directors were bothering with. His ornate, highly literary dialogue, his emphasis on manners and morals and the higher reaches of American society, set the films apart and endeared him to his fans.
After a 14-year absence, Stillman has returned with Damsels in Distress. Anyone wondering if the hiatus diminished his preoccupations should set those ideas aside. Damsels is more Stillman than ever, in ways both reassuring and challenging. The subtle jokes that build on one another, the unexpected allusions, the emphasis on the interior dignity of the characters remains–in fact, it’s stronger than ever. To this Damsels adds some surreal twists, in the form of a tap-dancing subplot, the heroine’s desire to start an international dance craze, and even a couple of musical numbers. Those musical aspects are no sidebar; they’re an integral part of the movie’s world.
Damsels tells the story of three girls attending a venerable Eastern college that went coed some years back. But the intervening decades have done little to civilize the boys’ club atmosphere, with places like the D.U. fraternity clinging to boorish ways. The girls are determined to change that. Violet (Greta Gerwig), the ringleader, insists that the best way to choose a gentleman friend is to find someone “frankly inferior” and “help him realize his full potential.” In the meantime, Violet continuously, almost obsessively, strives to improve herself. Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) dispenses advice in a hauter-than-haute English accent and casts a withering eye on all male stratagems that smack of a “playboy-operator.” Heather (Carrie MacLemore) contributes her sweet-natured, entirely literal-minded musings to the group. They draw Lily (Analeigh Tipton) into their orbit, enlisting her to help them spread the word about courteous behavior and enhanced self-esteem via tap-dancing and, importantly, good hygiene. The girls believe in perfume as an expression of self respect, and Rose in particular suffers from nasal shock when encountering hazards such as an unbathed male student. Lily, however, turns out to be a complication as much as an ally.
Along the way, as is always the case with Stillman, other matters crop up, from the healing powers of hotel soap to a character who considers himself to be following the medieval ways of the Cathars. (Those ways include anal sex–delicately unspecified but unmistakably described.) It is safe to say that Damsels goes in directions even Stillman’s longtime devotees won’t be expecting. We sat down at Dunkin’ Donuts, one of Stillman’s favorite haunts, and as the sound system played an incongruous song selection that included Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” and “Fat-Bottomed Girls” by Queen, we discussed Damsels, its intelligent, diligently self-improving heroines, and where his vision of the world comes from. –Farran Smith Nehme
Joan’s Digest: I wanted to start by asking you about the perfume angle. When my perfume-writer friends take questions, the one they dread is “What perfume will drive a man wild?” because they say, “That is not the point of perfume. It’s something you’re wearing for yourself.” This film really got that. Do you have a personal interest in perfume?
Whit Stillman: To be honest, I am not really sure where that came from. It is true that I do think that perfume does furnish a room, in the sense that perfume creates a space. The right kind of perfume; the wrong kind of perfume is my god, terrible. The right kind of perfume on the right kind of person creates an aura and atmosphere around them that’s very appealing.
No, I do know where I got the idea; the original group of girls that I based [Damsels] on were named after a perfume. They had a habit of wearing a very expensive, notorious French perfume, which I won’t name, because I don’t want to link my film to actual people. I don’t know them and I don’t want to upset them. But I do know that this group that was so dynamic at Harvard in the 70s, they were associated with this one perfume. It was one of their trademarks.
JD: They all wore the same scent?
Whit Stillman: I actually went and bought the perfume in Paris. I walked past the company that had this famous scent. And so I went in, and my gosh was it expensive. I think that was part of the thing with these girls, they wore expensive perfume. and I bought a bottle like that [indicates a tiny bottle about 1 inch across]. And it was very strong perfume. And I took it home. And I sampled it. And I thought it was horrible. I shared it with my daughters and they all thought it was horrible. So we have a tiny, tiny bottle of this perfume we all hate. My favorite–I have very simple tastes–I remember identifying a perfume that I really liked, called Diorissimo. [ed note- At one time the working title of Damsels in Distress]
JD: Oh yes, that’s a beautiful floral.
Whit Stillman: Yeah, I love Diorissimo. And I read about it, and the famous perfumer who created it. He had planted a whole garden in Grasse, with muguet.
JD: Yeah, it’s the ultimate lily-of-the-valley perfume.
Whit Stillman: And it’s so emotional. My experiences with muguet in Paris were such a big deal, so important. And I always liked Diorissimo, I knew that. I’m afraid I got into a sort of playboy-operator trap. I would give the same perfume to all the women I was involved with, just in case. [laughs]
JD: There’s the whole nasal shock aspect, and the fact that they’re very sensitive and attuned. When one girl comes into the suicide prevention center and they immediately ask if she’s wearing perfume–it’s seen as a sign of pride in yourself.
Whit Stillman: We were worried at that point in the film that it might seem noxious or snobbish. But that’s supposed to be compassionate, [Violet] wants to help her. She says it to Depressed Debbie.
It’s a moment in the film that concerns me. We sort of have to struggle in the film to get people to like Violet better. There’s this default, rather cliched–although we can’t criticize cliches in our film, as we raise them–there’s a cliched response where the outside character is the likable one from the audience point of view, and the insiders are the rather bad characters who need to be reprimanded and changed. Generally in our film it’s the reverse. It’s generally the outside character who has to wake up and be changed, in terms of transforming themselves. And in this case, the Lily character is not at all that idea…in fact, she’s the nemesis character in the film. It’s amazing that people don’t get that. And they say absolutely absurd things; they compare them to Mean Girls or Heathers or something like that. And they say, “The film finally comes alive when they meet the outsider Lily character.” That is the first scene in the film.
JD: That wasn’t my reaction at all. One thing that struck me is that your films deal with groups of people who are traditionally thought of as somewhat snobbish, yet they’re very welcoming. All Tom in Metropolitan has to do to become part of the Sally Fowler Rat Pack is walk out of a debutante ball in a bad coat. And Damsels was very much in keeping with that, from the get-go; they spot Lily and say, “That one.” I would have loved to go to college and have someone just draw me in like that.
Whit Stillman: I think that certain experiences that I had, I remember very socially secure people being very welcoming and very nice. So I think there really are people who are class acts. And I remember these mothers of the girls at deb parties who were really terribly nice. And some of them remember me arriving to pick up the daughter with my tie untied, because I didn’t know how to tie it. And so they’d help me tie my black tie, and put us on the road. They’re pretty darn nice people. Maybe I was just lucky. But it goes against this sort of stereotype. I think where people are very comfortable in their situation, sometimes it makes them much nicer.
JD: I once read a writer who said good manners were a fundamental form of morality. And I see that very much in your movie, too. If not morality, then kindness.
Whit Stillman: Yes. The golden rule, in all these cases. How would you want to be treated yourself. There is an element of potential condescension, though, which is very uncomfortable, I think. I guess it’s notorious that I was fairly hard up. So even in my young married life, we’d be socializing with older, more affluent people. And they were forever sharing a taxicab, and they’d always insist on paying, or overpaying. And I was sort of Holly Golightly getting tips to go to the powder room.
JD: So you’ve seen it from both sides–the inner and the outer.
Whit Stillman: Oh, I was generally the recipient. And I think it put me in good stead. For me, ground zero was when my parents separated, and we came back to New York with my mother. And we were in fine shape economically. But there was this idea that we didn’t have any extra, that there’d be no vacations. But the result was that I became this sort of less-affluent friend who’d be taken along on a vacation with a school classmate or my cousins. And it was just heaven. Heaven. Because to be the best friend or the friend who is being brought along, all the tensions of being with your parents and siblings were gone. I was the kind of liked outsider, the person they are being quite nice to.
And then I had a wonderful aunt who was going through life changes. She was trying to shift from being in Manhattan to going down to Palm Beach. And I think her marriage was very very tough. She had a very eccentric, kind of mean, kind of crazy husband. And I think he got the idea of going down to Palm Beach. So she went down on a scouting mission and brought me along with my two cousins, and we just had such a great time. She put us up at the Breakers, in Palm Beach–in the old days, when it was the true old Breakers. And I had a romance there with the loveliest girl. She was so beautiful. And she’s turned into a really important photographer. But we were reading Fitzgerald and she was just like Nicole [Diver, in Tender Is the Night]–sort of a Fitzgerald character, someone like that. Fortunately it didn’t last, because we were probably both out of our minds.
But I haven’t felt the need to continue that with my own life. I mean live in Palm Beach or something like that. I run into these people and they sort of talk about how vastly expensive their lives are to keep up. And it’s a bit incredible what they consider normal, and everything they have to have, and how they have to do it. So I got into this low-budget thing and I have found it very liberating. But it’s nice to have a vacation and people you can visit who have a nicer life.
JD: You’re referring to the Breakers, very emblematic of a certain old style of wealth, and maybe a polished and genteel type of life. In some sense, the girls in the movie–I don’t know, do you see them as rejecting modernity, or just wanting to mold it to their own purposes?
Whit Stillman: One of the things that I think is a misconception with my other films, people think that these are by origin, preppy upper-middle-class girls. When in fact, the two live wires, who are Violet and Rose, are almost certainly scholarship students. Who knows what their background is. We know later about Violet that her parents had no money, that they died, she must have been brought up by grandparents. So maybe her oldness is part of being brought up by grandparents. But I see her as a happy Miss Jean Brodie character.
JD: I love The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie too.
Whit Stillman: I adore that movie. One of the things I don’t like about it is that once again, this incredibly magical, dynamic character has to get her comeuppance. She has to be revealed to be sad, and misguided, and all these other things. And I just think there’s this form of movie, where they have an incredibly charismatic character, and they think the interesting, modern thing is to show the unhappiness and despair behind the mask, blah blah blah. I think that’s become a hoary cliche.
The truth is that some of these people are great and fantastic. It’s kind of a copout, when they have to have the comeuppance of Miss Jean Brodie. They enjoy this character, they profit from this character–people go to the movie to see this wonderful character, they don’t go to the movie to see the comeuppance. It’s a very tiresome, 60s kind of thing. My impression is that the novel is better in that regard. I think that the play, which the movie followed, took kind of a hackneyed turn. But it’s still excellent, really wonderful. So Violet I see as a Miss Jean Brodie character. A good one.
JD: I saw the movie again last year but it’s been a while since I re-read the book. But I definitely agree with you. Why can’t she live in her splendid world of art, quoting the Lady of Shalott to goggle-eyed students and showing them Giotto?
Whit Stillman: And it’s the Brodie set. and the rest of the school resents and hates the Brodie set.
JD: Right, so in your movie…
Whit Stillman: Well, this is a different case, because the Violet character isn’t trying to have a set. She’s trying to reform the world. She wants even the benighted Doar Dormers to become Dior Dormers, and the DU frat boys to become sambola dancers.
JD: These are women as a civilizing influence, which is a very classic theme. But they are doing it in a very strong, intelligent sort of way.
Whit Stillman: Yes, and they do have allies. Charlie would be an ally. He’s a bit on the same track as Violet. He’s thinking in terms of Dandy Literature, and she’s think about these other things.
JD: So that’s why they’re meant for each other.
Whit Stillman: They’re definitely meant for each other.
JD: One thing that I did want to ask about was the “Cathar love” aspect. It’s a bit left-field, for a Stillman fan. Was there a particular impetus?
Whit Stillman: Yeah, there are two women I know who were subjected to that kind of thing. One was Cathar love, the other was just interested in that sort of… And I noticed. And I thought it was a good, extreme thing to represent all sorts of male coercion for women to do stuff. To represent how all that could lead to funny stuff. Because… I knew a woman, a lovely woman who in the 1970s had a professor boyfriend who was a Cathar.
JD: She was his student?
Stillman: Well, [she] was a graduate student. In our film it’s the graduate student who’s a Cathar. And I was exposed to another situation like that. I knew a woman who had a guy who was giving her books about the joys of—that kind of sex. Great. With pictures. So we actually downplayed it from the real world. But it is true, from what I understand it’s true. It’s the Cathar way.
JD: It was a brand-new one on me.
Stillman: Apparently the Cathars were also pro-suicide. We didn’t use all the ramifications of that.
JD: There’s also the whole musical angle. I also went back to the old George Stevens musical, A Damsel in Distress. [Stillman mimes putting a gun to his head.] I’m sorry, did I…um…
Whit Stillman: No, [a critic] didn’t like the film at Toronto, and then tried to show his erudition by saying our film was much inferior to the classic George Stevens blah blah blah, A Damsel in Distress. And A Damsel in Distress was a notorious flop.
JD: I was going to say that.
Whit Stillman: George Stevens is a famous director, but he was not a good director of those Fred Astaire things. I think it’s so amusing that someone who not only is wrongheaded about current films, is pretentious about erudition, but actually gets it all wrong. So like, three strikes.
JD: I didn’t see this review, but I would be inclined to agree that out of all the Fred Astaire films of the era, it’s kind of the least engaging. Joan Fontaine is one of my favorite actresses, but…
Whit Stillman: There is one good number, “Things Are Looking Up.”
JD: Yes, and you have a kind of echo of that, with the skipping in the closing number.
Whit Stillman: It’s amazing how many people because he’s a big name… I feel he gets all this credit for the [Astaire] films that he did, when the guy who is really great, who I love, is Mark Sandrich, whom no one ever talks about ever ever. When he did wonderful films, like The Gay Divorcee, which is my favorite, and Top Hat, which is also a great film…Those two are just great, great movies. One is Cole Porter and the other is Irving Berlin. But Gay Divorcee is such a lovely film, it’s adorable. And the songs it has, like “Night and Day,” and “The Continental.” That Continental number is one of the most amazing things.
The other thing I really love is from the Gold Diggers of 1935, and it’s the original version of “Lullaby of Broadway.” It’s just mind-boggling. And one of the things I’d like to do is The Gold Diggers of 2015. A Warner Brothers musical review set in the present day.
JD: Oh yeah? Would you do wisecracking showgirls?
Whit Stillman: Of course, of course. You don’t want any modern. There will be no punk rock.
JD: Wisecracking showgirls are one of my favorite things.
Whit Stillman: Well, I remember when we were getting a lot of grief for our talky films not being cinematic. And I remember favorite films, like Stage Door. And Stage Door is wall-to-wall dialogue.
JD: A lot of 30s movies are. So we have Sandrich, La Cava with Stage Door, probably My Man Godfrey too? Are there any other touchstones you go back to?
Whit Stillman: My Man Godfrey is actually not one of my favorites.
JD: Oh my god really? I love it. I’m so sorry.
Whit Stillman: No, I love the actors. I think they are better than the material. The material is a little subpar compared to other things. I wrote something in the Times in November about favorite holiday films, and I wrote about The Shop Around the Corner. I adore Margaret Sullavan, I like The Good Fairy also. There’s so many films, even Three Comrades.
JD: Oh yeah. Margaret Sullavan is very big with the commenters on my blog.
Whit Stillman: Oh my gosh, she’s so lovely. She’s like a perfume herself.
JD: That voice
Whit Stillman: Oh, the voice.
JD: Was there anything more you wanted to say about the musical aspect?
Whit Stillman: I feel that all the films are utopian to some degree. And isn’t romantic musical comedy the ultimate utopianism? A utopian universe. And I love musicals, but I didn’t know really–it’s hard to imagine doing a full-scale musical. This is about as musical as you could get.
JD: This in itself is very 30s, having a movie that’s not entirely a musical, with a couple of musical numbers.
Whit Stillman: Any excuse to get them dancing!
“Broadway Melody” from Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935, Berkeley)
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