In a movie as stylized as Whit Stillman’s “Damsels in Distress,"decor is destiny, so it’s no accident that the dorm room shared by Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her roommates at a northeastern liberal arts college prominently features the poster for Max Ophüls’ maudit masterwork “Lola Montès.”
Violet, an amateur self-help guru who practices her questionable theories on her unfortunate classmates, doesn’t share much with Ophüls’ eponymous heroine, a Scottish dancer who reinvented herself as the Spanish mistress of a Bavarian king. Stillman, who before a 14-year break between features was known for his mannered take on the lifestyles of the 1%, has with “Damsels” attempted a makeover equally as audacious and as implausible.
As in “Metropolitan” and “The Last Days of Disco,” Stillman’s characters combine excruciatingly self-conscious speech with an extreme lack of self-awareness. “I love clichés and hackneyed expressions of every kind,” Violet exclaims, professing her love for the vernacular while betraying a tin ear for it. But the undergraduate equivalent of cocktail-party chatter shares screen time with running gags about suicidal ideation and anal sex, suggesting that Stillman has swapped bodies, or at least ids, with his contemporary Todd Solondz.
In pastel cardigans that dovetail with the movie’s gauzy, overlighted look, Violet styles herself as a living testament to the power of positive thinking, an amateur suicide counselor who believes there’s no problem that can’t be alleviated by a nicely scented bar of soap and, if all else fails, some vigorous tap dancing. She gains a willing if soon skeptical compatriot in transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton), who joins Violet’s roommates Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) in a redolent bouquet.
Their collective bearing suggests the upper rungs of the social ladder, but Violet consciously sets her sights low in the dating game, reasoning that average-looking men make the most grateful boyfriends — or at least so she says. The penny never quite drops, but Stillman certainly leaves open the possibility that Violet’s entire philosophy is a smoke screen for her social shortcomings. More than once, when the object of her cracked ministrations accuses her of being crazy, she agrees with them.
Where “Metropolitan” and “Last Days of Disco” centered on protagonists who, whatever their shortcomings, seemed capable of holding their own, “Damsels in Distress” turns its wit on the witless, whether it’s dopey Heather, who’s quite sure that “Xavier” is spelled with a Z (“like Zorro”) or a sublimely dimwitted fraternity brother who’s yet to learn the colors of the spectrum.
Gerwig and Echikunwoke deploy weapons-grade poker faces, but Stillman too often substitutes pith for insight, until even that is drowned out by the sound of him chortling into his sleeve.