The Soul of Whit
Things I look out for in gathering material for a blog post: sketch groups busy ‘reinventing the genre’;[i] up-and-coming stand-ups about to squander their promise in something awful on BBC3; funny females and/or articles denying there could ever be such a thing (anything to chase ever-elusive publicity); and writers or performers with a distinctive style. The last category is sparsely populated - it’s a tough job being either funny or distinctive, let alone both.
Step forward Whit Stillman, American auteur and purveyor of the sort of low-energy satire for which the adjective ‘sly’ should have been coined. If you haven’t seen any of his work, think of him as a sort of goyish Woody Allen with fewer zingers, or a less geeky Wes Anderson. These comparisons place him fairly accurately as regards the class of his characters, and his nostalgic aesthetic; they also hint at his humour without really summing it up.
Stillman’s characters want, in a self-conscious fashion, to change the world. His is a universe where you can barely move for bumping into chunks of ideology: decorum, etiquette and Catharism are among the causes spoken up for in his latest film (and first for thirteen years), Damsels in Distress. For a film which is nominally a comedy, it is noticeable how few attempts at humour any of the characters make. Everyone is in earnest here, which can become tiresome but is also the key to the film’s charm. What makes Stillman’s sense of humour so distinctive is how none of his characters are played for laughs. They are naïve, for the most part – though the Cathar turns out to have a hidden agenda – but the film indulges them; they may lose in love or life, they may lose their innocence, but they never lose their belief.
I can imagine this being highly irritating to someone who doesn’t buy into Stillman’s conceit. A lot of what we see seems misguided or downright irrelevant, and the determinately non-judgemental approach taken towards it might come across as precious, a celebration of difference for its own sake. I can sympathise with criticisms of this sort, but I can’t help but feel that they are missing the point somewhat. Stillman isn’t presenting these characters as rebukes to the cynicism of our sullied age, but as studies of people with a very particular set of attitudes towards the past and the present. The humour comes from the incompatibility between their beliefs and the real world, but the joke is on neither them nor us; the joke is our mutual incomprehension. Violet and her companions, ceaselessly trying to drag the male students of Sevenoaks University into an age of innocence or at least one of personal grooming, are ridiculous, but they are not laughable, no more than we would be for ignoring what they get so worked up over.
The obvious danger with this approach is a lack of bite or sharpness in the writing, something compounded in Damsels in Distress by the slow-moving plot. Whitman, it has been observed, makes comedies of manners, but at times his comedy is too mannered for its own good. This is why, for all that I find his films intriguing, I can never enjoy them as much as I would like. Whether this is Stillman’s fault or my own is, of course, another matter.