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Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: The Wit and Wisdom of Whit Stillman

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The film has been garnering fantastic notices at various film festivals over the past six months. Photo / Supplied
The film has been garnering fantastic notices at various film festivals over the past six months. Photo / Supplied

I articulated my anticipation for Whit Stillman's new film Damsels In Distress in a blog I posted at the begining of the year. Now the trailer for the film has been released (it is embedded below), and my anticipation is entering new levels of feverishness.

Whit Stillman isn't the most prolific writer/director - he's only made three films. But all of them are absolute winners.

His films are all light dramas with plenty of comedic elements, and generally feature intelligent and attractive twenty-somethings attempting to negociate what comprises a social life. On paper this makes them seem pretty generic, but there's an old-fashioned formality to his movies, especially in the dialogue, that seperates him out from other filmmakers covering similar territory. He's kind of like Woody Allen meets John Hughes meets F.

Scott Fitzgerald.

Stillman's first film was 1989's Metropolitan, which is set during the New York debutante season over the Christmas holidays. In Stillman's mind, the film is set in the late '60s, but he didn't have the budget to make a period film so certain exterior shots give the time period away. But for the most part, it's easy to imagine it being the '60s. It tells the story of a middle class Ivy League student who gets drafted into a group of charming young well-to-do New Yorkers. It's mostly set at debutante ball after parties in fancy New York apartments and it is simply wonderful.

His follow-up, 1994's Barcelona, is a tad more political, and concerns two young men living in the titular city and contending with anti-American sentiment while romancing the local lovelies.

Then came 1998's The Last Days of Disco, the most recent film Stillman has released. Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny lead a stellar cast as two young college graduates looking for love in "very early '80s" New York while frequenting a nightclub with more than a passing resemblence to the legendary Studio 54. The Last Days of Disco unfortunately got lumped in with the awful Mike Myers film 54, released around the same time, but has built up a solid reptutation on DVD.

Beckinsale and Sevigny have rarely been better, and the former does a magnificent job playing one of the bitchiest characters in cinematic history.

I watch all three films regularly - they only get better with repeat viewing. They are known by fans as the 'UHB Trilogy', named for a term coined by one of the characters in Metropolitan as a less pejorative alternative to'yuppie': Urban Haute Borgoise. UHB.

And now we have Damsels In Distress (currently set to debut in New Zealand at the World Cinema Showcase beginning late March), which going by the trailer, looks set to include many classic Stillman elements - college age heroines; discussions about the nature of socialising and tentatively approached romance.

Throughout the '00s, Stillman had been attempting to get a film about the Spanish Civil War off the ground, but that came to nothing. When early word about Damsels In Distress started emerging, I hoped it would conform to the style of his earlier films, but am open to whatever it ends up being.

Just how much of an UHB film Damsels In Distress turns out to be remains to be seen, but the trailer suggests it is very much heading in that direction, and I have much faith in Whit. I am also highly intrigued to see how the musical elements glimpsed in the trailer fit into the movie as a whole.

Lead Greta Gerwig (a rising indie actress last seen as the love interest in Russell Brand's awful Arthur remake) looks like a fantastic fit for Stillman's trademark dialogue, and I like that he's filled out the rest of the cast with mostly unknowns.

Stillman has a tendency to have characters from his earlier films pop up in cameos, and the presence of Carolyn Farina (the female lead in Metropolitan) and Taylor Nichols (who starred in both Metropolitan and Barcelona) in the credits shown at the end of the trailer suggest such activity here. The only element missing is Stillman's muse/alter ego Chris Eigeman, who had leading roles in all three UHB films. But I don't know for sure that he doesn't appear in Damsels In Distress.

Damsels In Distress has been garnering fantastic notices at various film festivals over the past six months, which is very encouraging. I just hope its enough of a success to allow Stillman to do whatever he wants to next.

While you wait for it to come out, do yourself a favour and check out Metropolitan; Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco - they all rule!

Any other Whit Stillman fans out there? Are you amped for Damsels In Distress? What's your favourite Stillman film?


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