There's an unmistakable personal stamp to the romantic comedies of Whit Stillman. His esthetic as a writer and director reflects his Harvard Club roots, with a yearning for the sophisticated golden age of the East Coast American establishment. Cocktails are quaffed, urbane characters fence with four-syllable words, young men dress for parties in white tie, and debutantes fret over such One Percent problems as "a severe escort shortage."
Stillman was retro before "Mad Men" made it cool.
Stillman scored a best screenplay Oscar nomination for his debut, 1990's "Metropolitan," and followed with the well-regarded "Barcelona" and "The Last Days of Disco," in which he bid a genuinely nostalgic farewell to dance fever.
After an intermission of 14 years, he has returned with "Damsels in Distress." Indie queen Greta Gerwig stars as a bossy Ivy League coed out to improve the world by starting a dance craze. It was the closing-night feature at the Venice Film Festival; it's now in theaters, locally at the Lagoon.
In town recently to boost the movie, Stillman resembled a slightly creased page from a Ralph Lauren catalog, seersucker jacket rumpled just so. His exile from moviemaking, he confessed, was not entirely self-imposed.
An impractical dater
"I was in director jail," he said. "I'm not a very good producer, and I never married the production manager and had a good built-in producer, which is what all my Spanish director friends did. They either turned their wife into their producer or their producer became their wife. I only dated for romance, never for practicality."
During years as an expatriate he worked fruitlessly to launch "Red Azalea," a memoir of China's cultural revolution, an adaptation of Christopher Buckley's comic UFO novel "Little Green Men" and a Jamaican musical titled "Dancing Mood."
"It wasn't that depressing because I was in these very nice places like Paris and Madrid, writing. It's just that I thought I could be over there and the films would go forward," he said, sounding chagrined.
It was the small-budget American independent film movement of the last decade, often called mumblecore, that demonstrated how "people can do inexpensive films now very well. It's a filmmaker frame of mind: We're just going to do what's necessary to make it happen. It's very simplifying."
A number of the actors Stillman met while casting "Damsels" were also mumblecore directors. "Lena Dunham [of the revered comedy 'Tiny Furniture' and HBO's 'Girls'] became a friend, and her producer developed a plan for how we could do this film super low-budget." Gerwig, another highly regarded mumblecore figure, became a cheerleader for the project and eventually its star.
The soundtrack channels the cool, upbeat Brill Building tunes of the early 1960s, including "Things Are Looking Up," an obscure Gershwin brothers song introduced by Fred Astaire in the 1937 film "A Damsel in Distress."
"It's fairly little-known and it is a great depression cure," Stillman said. "It deals with melancholy and coming back from melancholy. That's so much part of a lot of people's university experience. Adults say, 'It's the best years of your lives,' but when you get there you're lost and depressed. It was party times with alcohol that got me out of my college depression, but that's not recommended."
"Damsels" is a youth comedy with an old-school feel; musical numbers erupt out of nowhere and characters speak manicured dialog. It's a love letter to bygone movies "that were all a bit Utopian," said Stillman, who attended college in the tumultuous late 1960s. "It's a romantic vision of the college comedy. I have a very positive image of 1962, the styles and the people, that period of 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' and all that. I thought these girls would be in love with that period and wanted to re-enact it on the campus to counteract this depressing, grungy, male barbarism, so we have a contemporary retro film."
The director of the Dublin Film Festival called it "Jane Austen meets 'Animal House.' " Stillman takes that as a compliment, but offers a synopsis he prefers. "I see this as the girl's 'Rushmore,'" he said.