This is a voice that may require some explanation for our younger readers. Between 1990 and 1998, the writer-director Whit Stillman turned out a run of smart, literate, most of all talky comedies centring on the personal and professional foibles of a group of young, recently graduated, generally affluent Americans. The films grew more expansive (and expensive) over time: from his low-budget breakthrough Metropolitan, Stillman (and many of the same characters and actors) progressed to the sunny Barcelona, part of a set of mid-90s American features (oft produced by the then-ascendant production company Castle Rock: Before Sunrise, Forget Paris) that sought to explore the New Europe. Stillman's crowning glory should have been the turn-of-the-80s period drama The Last Days of Disco, which had full studio backing (courtesy of Warner Bros.), up-and-coming young stars (in Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny) and a frankly fabulous soundtrack, yet still crashed and burned at the box-office, leading to a decade of stalled projects and despair for its creative force.
It may be another sign of the juvenilisation of the American cinema that Stillman has had to return with a college campus comedy, yet Damsels in Distress enjoys a surprising continuity with the world those earlier films were located in. You might choose to see it as Stillman's idea of an origin story: the movie that explains how his characters ended up where they did, in the state they were, saying the things that they said. "What's the plural of doofus?," one of his damsels wonders, to which her contemporary replies she thinks it might be "doofi" ("because it respects the Latin root") rather than the inelegant "doofuses". "You've thought a lot about this," Damsel #1 notes, which garners the response "I've had to". Stillman, you feel, has had to, too, and has had the time to do so: put plainly, there have been a lot more doofi about in the movies these past ten years.
The plot of Damsels in Distress owes something of a debt to such well-established sleepover faves as Clueless, Mean Girls, even The Craft. A new girl on campus, Lily (Analeigh Tipton), falls under the wing of a prevailing clique; in this instance, the demoiselles of Seven Oaks University's Suicide Prevention Center, a haughty trio who regard house parties as part of their outreach program and recommend dating losers (who can be molded into workable companions) rather than jocks (who smell bad, and will only break your heart). Sitting in judgement on their peers before a handpainted sign that bears the legend "Come on - it's not that bad", the Damsels feed the stressed and distressed free doughnuts in a bid to perk them up, although there remains a worry certain students have been pretending to be suicidal in order to get their mitts on free doughnuts.
Of course, it's the would-be sophisticates behind the desk who prove most in need of guidance, life-lessons, a wake-up call. After having her heart broken, de facto damsel-in-chief Violet (Greta Gerwig) goes off the rails - not in a LiLo way, but a very Whit-ty way, which is to say running off to nearby Villafranca and booking herself into a moderately priced motel. Violet, at least, has a plan for herself. Most of the characters surrounding her really are clueless, at least by the exacting intellectual standards Stillman sets. They don't know whether the name Xavier begins with an X or a Z (and have to concoct a counter-history for Zorro to make their thesis fit); they ask of Truffaut's 1968 film Baisers Volés "is it new?"; they pronounce everyday words ("fatigued", "operator") in an amusingly peculiar manner; one of the jocks hasn't yet gained any mental purchase on the concept of colour.
You could argue that Stillman is being frightfully condescending around these not-so-bright young things, but he rather likes their company, even as they allow him plentiful opportunity to skewer the delusions and hypocrisies of youth. (This may explain why he's been persona non grata with producers, who nowadays would much rather pander to our kids than dare say anything about them.) Violet insists "we are all flawed - must that render us mute to the flaws of others?" Her would-be love interest Charlie (Adam Brody) defends himself at one point with the impressively semantic "I wasn't lying - I was making it up!" Both characters have taken steps to reinvent themselves in the timeless quest for popularity and happiness: Violet, we learn, was born Emily Tweeter, while Brody's character was formerly known as Fred Packensacker, names over which the spirit of Preston Sturges surely presides.
Stillman, too, is trying to reinvent himself as a commercially viable filmmaker, yet certain aspects of his personality remain fundamentally unaltered. His logorrhea shows precisely no signs of abating: the new film has long, considered riffs on such topics as the importance of scented soap to a good life and man's inexplicable emotional attachment to the hackysack, as well as several of the subtlest allusions to anal sex ever made in a 12A-rated movie. Like his closest French counterpart Eric Rohmer, Stillman believes that character is best revealed through talk; he treats words as one might the family's best silver cutlery, polishing them endlessly. It should be noted there is a lot in Stillman's cutlery drawer: Damsels in Distress throws up only just fewer more words-per-minute than Aaron Sorkin, and I can understand why several esteemed colleagues of mine found the experience akin to being buried under an avalanche of arch, arcane chatter. (I'll confess I've always found Stillman's films more pleasurable on a second or third viewing, by which point the construction and characters have started to emerge from the more verbose passages.)
Still, the approach has its advantages. Minor characters and day players (here extending to the calibre of Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat and Funny People's Aubrey Plaza) get whole paragraphs and monologues to themselves, and it gives a quartet of very appealing young actresses the kind of lines and ideas to play with that they're unlikely to get in the multiplex romantic comedies that might be lurking in wait for them two or three years down the line. Gerwig, the mumblecore postergirl whose support for the script apparently helped get the film greenlit, is rewarded for her loyalty with a lavish tap-dancing number that expands some way beyond Disco's mirrorball scenes, but the film also grants major career boosts to her fellow damsels: Tipton, proof you can graduate from America's Next Top Model and still appear smart, funny and judicious in your choices; Carrie MacLemore, in what we might call the Amanda Seyfried role as the sort of sweetly, breathlessly dumb young woman only a truly intelligent performer might keep from toppling over into outright caricature; and Megalyn Echikunwoke, blessed with the irresistible combo of a plummy English accent and perfect timing, whose riffs on "playboy-slash-operat-or type behaviour" may just be the funniest thing here.
I say may, because Stillman clearly remains a matter of personal taste. Somewhere within Damsels, there lurks the suspicion the director may be faking the kind of gaucherie the movies lap up nowadays; it rears its head most obviously in the closing moments, when he gives Tipton a big assimilation speech damning the cult of cool, and stressing that the uniqueness we prize in others too often manifests itself in the form of colossal pains in the neck. "What we need," our heroine concludes, "is a large mass of normal people" - and Damsels in Distress, which ends with an attempt to start a dance craze and a rainbow in the sky, may just be the closest Stillman comes to making a "normal" film without selling out altogether. We can hardly blame an indie filmmaker for wanting to come in from the cold, though, and this sundappled opus at the very least returns to circulation a voice that, in its gender balance and rarefied vocabulary, provides a welcome alternative to the relentless knob gags of so much mainstream comedy. Nobody else working in 2012 would have one of their college-age characters ask, in all apparent seriousness, "you've entirely dropped your allegiance to the Cathar faith?" - even if they are alluding to sodomy.
Damsels in Distress opens in selected cinemas from Friday.