Benedict XVI has
Catholicism, isn’t a collection of prohibitions: it’s a positive option. It’s
very important that we look at it again because this idea has almost completely
disappeared today. We’ve heard so much about what is not allowed that now it’s
time to say: we have a positive idea to offer ... I believe we need to see and
reflect on the fact that it’s not a Catholic invention that man and woman are
made for each other, so that humanity can go on living: all cultures know
Stillman’s new film, Damsels in Distress,
offers one of the most positive film endings in recent memory. What most
reviewers of the film have neglected to mention is how the film makes a subtle
suggestion about authentic Catholicism as a positive, counter-cultural option
in the face of dominant cultural trends.
film’s virtuous heroine, Violet (Greta Gerwig), speaks a number of times about
the need to be a good Christian. Most reviewers pass over this important aspect
of her character in silence, no doubt for the same reasons that audiences
have reportedly gasped out loud in horror at such declarations by
first, Violet’s charming naivety seems to be played for laughs, as if she is
simply a comic character with an amusing form of mental illness. But by the
time the movie ends, the audience is challenged to ask themselves: Isn’t
Violet’s crazy dream-world in fact preferable? Is hers not the most beautiful
way of choosing to transfigure the real world? Isn’t it really the dominant
cultureconcretely symbolized by the movie’s decadent “Cathar” heretic, Xavier
is truly crazy?
movie’s positive ending shows Violet as she sings and dances with her favorite
man (The O.C.’s Adam Brody) along
with the rest of the movie’s cast to the obscure Fred Astaire number, “Things
Are Looking Up.” Over the closing credits, the audience is incited to start a
new dance craze, the “Sambola!”a clever rainbow-blend of “greatest hits” dance
moves of Violet’s invention.
VIOLET: I know that people can have useful
careers in many areas: Medicine. Law. Finance
VIOLET: Yes, even educationbut 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.
VIOLET: Yes. Something that might enhance the
life of every oneand every couple.
the beginning of the movie, Violet is shown defending the idea of a man
ordering drinks from across the bar as a romantic gesture. It’s one of her best
speeches in the movie, and while at the time it makes her seem absurd even to
her own friends, it is clear that Stillman is refusing simply to ridicule her.
Rather, in the context of Violet’s own pursuit of humility (at one point, she
sincerely thanks Lily for a “chastisement”), even Violet’s silliest mistakes
become endearing. Thus, in retrospect, from the vantage point of the film’s
musical climax, her speech about a man ordering drinks for a woman seems meant
to portray Violet and her cultural philosophy as the most appealing option on
VIOLET: He was probably just yearning for some intelligent
discourse. He could see that Alice and Lily are college students. College
students are well-known for their interesting conversation. After all, they can
talk about their courses. That’s probably what attracted him… His aspirations
were perhaps even loftierto court Lily, with a view to matrimony. We’re in the
North, but occasionally a Southern gentleman will wander into these parts.
is introduced to us as the zany leader of a trio of girls on the fictional
Seven Oaks campus who welcome a newcomer, Lily (Analeigh Tipton). Lily
functions as Violet’s foil, something especially highlighted when Lily is later
on seduced by the “Cathar” Xavier. But prior to that, the girls enlist Lily as
part of their efforts to improve the campus with a program of beautiful
clothes, perfumed soap, and tap-dancing as suicide-prevention therapy.
distress from which these damsels need to be rescued is nothing less than the
rampant boorishness of contemporary culture. But because the frat-boy mentality
of the campus militates against any chivalric rescue, the damsels take matters
into their own hands and instead pursue Violet’s nostalgic dream of a better
RICK: You should know something about these
girlsthey run the
“Suicide Center” where their preferred therapy for seriously depressed and
suicidal people is…tap dancing. I kid you not.
VIOLET: Tap is a very effective therapy as well
as a dazzlingly expressive dance form. It’s been sadly neglected for too many
RICK: It’s moronic and barbaric. You seriously
expect tap dancing to solve these people’s problems?
VIOLET: No, we don’twe’re using the
whole range of musical dance numbers which over many years have proven
themselves effective therapies for the suicidal and hopelessly depressed.
the movie’s suicide-prevention theme that got me thinking the most. It seems to
me that the real theme of the film is the suicide of the West, with Violet operating
as Whit Stillman’s proxy for offering a “suicide-prevention” program for the
West. In a telling line, Xavier alludes to Catharism (i.e., non-procreative
sex) being more culturally widespread than people realize or care to
acknowledge. (The fanatical ideology of the modern “Cathar” movement is nicely
satirized in the film by Xavier’s indignation at a rival whose “Cathar”
practices are virtually indistinguishable from his own.)
film nostalgically laments the absence of rudimentary knowledge about decorous
intercourse between the sexes. As examples, it highlights romantic gestureslike
ordering drinks from across the baror courtshiplike
asking someone out on a date or going dancing. The historic import of such a
loss of manners is symbolized in the film by the behavior of the frat boys of
the fictional Seven Oaks “Roman Letter” fraternities (such as “D.U.”) and the
concomitant comic suggestion about how “Greek Letter” fraternities are thus in
decline today (“D.U.” being the decadent substitute for “Delta Upsilon”).
this I take as wry shorthand symbolizing the decline of the West. Hence it is
in this symbolic context that Violet’s wacky program comes across as an
eminently sane way to educate the masses in basic cultural hygiene. Just as
Violet wants the frat boys to use fragrant soap so that the girls can be spared
“nasal shock,” so too Stillman seems to be evoking the restoration of decorous
formality, like dancing, as the best way for the West to prevent cultural
VIOLET: 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.
grand dance finale of the film is preceded by the epiphany of the frat boy Thor
(Billy Magnussen), wherein he is able to distinguish the colors of the rainbow
for the first time. Earlier, Thor had been played for laughs as someone who had
never learned how to identify primary colors. But it is his parents whom the
film blames for his mis-education. And Stillman also has Thor make an eloquent
THOR: I don’t know about you but I don’t think
anyone should feel embarrassed about not knowing stuff. What’s embarrassing is
pretending to know what you don’tor putting down other people just because you
think they don’t know as much as you. I’m happy to admit I’m completely
ignorant. That’s why I’m here and plan to really hit the books. The next time
you see me, I’ll know more than I do now. I’ll be older, but also wiseror at least
know more stuff. For me, that’s education.
Stillman never condescends to any of his
characters, even the types whom most people prefer to see as unlikable. Hence
my suspicion that what Stillman is up to with Thor is not just broad comedy.
Rather, Thor’s inability to distinguish primary colors is symbolic of today’s
glaring lack of decorous relations between young men and women, whether in the
form of dancing or courtship. I think most critics miss this symbolic dimension
(which, in Thor’s instance, would amount to a cultural reclamation of the more
quotidian “rainbow” symbolism), even though it is undeniably present (arguably
as a deliberate product of Stillman’s literary sensitivities). But they miss it
because Stillman steadfastly refuses to engage in conventional moralizing when
it comes to his characters. Instead, in the most gentle of ways, Stillman makes
his comically positive suggestions about how our culture could aspire to so
much more. In a movie blissfully free of today’s all-too familiar F-bombs, he
has Rose rant instead about the colloquial overuse of bland words like “fine”
ROSE: The Lord gave
us abilitieshe requires that we use them: “Good. Better. Best. Excelsior!
Higher!” Only excellence can glorify the Lord. Vulgarity is, in essence,
In thus countering vulgarity and decadence, not
with a hectoring moralism, but instead with his trademark wit and open-hearted
humility, Stillman seems to be making the kind of positive appeal that aims to
win over anyone’s better self. Stillman’s “positive option” is offered to a
culture in decline, a culture that one of his characters observes has adopted
only the crudest forms of “the Cathar way”:
VIOLET: Have you chosen a topic for your paper?
FRED: Uh, “The Decline of Decadence.”
VIOLET: You think decadence has declined?
FRED: Definitely. Big time. Major, major
FRED: “How” or “in what ways”?
FRED: Okay, take the flit movement in literature,
Homosexuality. It’s gone completely downhill. Right down the tubes. [He makes
the sound: “Whchht.”]
FRED: Before, homosexuality was something
refined, hidden, subliminated, aspiring to the highest forms of expression and
often achieving them. Now it just seems to be a lot of muscle-bound morons
running around in T-shirts.
[Violet looks a little shocked.]
FRED: It’s pretty disillusioning.
[Violet pauses in thought for a long moment]
VIOLET: Are you gay?
FRED: Not especially. But in another era, it
would have had more appeal. Now, I just don’t see the point.
The point of the frat boy Thor’s
rainbow epiphany would therefore seem to be that, thanks to something like
Violet’s cultural education, he can now look at women with heightened
perception. Reviewers have not failed to notice that the names of the film’s
fragrant damsels are all the names of flowers. But are they not also colors?
Stillman seemingly invites us to look at them, after being educated in Violet’s
counter-cultural vision (as Thor has been), with a newly judicious eye.
Do we want to affirm Violet and
her “international dance craze” or not? And what would that “international
craze” be, other than the opposite of the Modernist heresy of decadent and
barren boorishness that in this film goes by the name of “Catharism”? Would it
not be the cultural fecundity of Violet’s own “Catholicism”?
Don’t get me wrong. It would be grossly unfair
to mistake Stillman for a moralizing reactionary or religious apologist. Like
Violet, Stillman himself refuses to be a “daily complainer” who would demonize
or scapegoat anyone. That’s because he, like her, turns out to be a curious
anachronism devoutly to be wished for: a humbly benevolent soul that, chasing
rainbows, makes us smile, laugh, and dance.