Brow Beat

“No More Ridiculous Than Life Itself”: Why Whit Stillman Loves Dancing

Violet (Greta Gerwig) and Fred/Charlie (Adam Brody) dance in a scene from Damsels in Distress.

Photo by Sabrina Lantos, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Last week, Whit Stillman and his sometimes muse Chris Eigeman reunited to discuss The Last Days of Disco at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The screening was part of a series curated by Lena Dunham, who began the panel by announcing that she, Stillman, and Eigeman were fighting because Whitman had described Dunham and Eigeman as “ingrates and traitors” in an interview. (Whitman had wanted Eigeman and Dunham to be in his latest film, the recently released Damsels in Distress, but both had declined.)

Eventually, the conversation moved onto The Last Days of Disco, but the testiness didn’t entirely disappear. Stillman mentioned that it’s very hard to get Eigeman to dance (Eigeman doesn’t dance at all in The Last Days of Disco), at which point Eigeman brought up his theory about why Stillman so often includes dancing scenes in his films. “Uh-oh,” interjected Stillman. “This is revenge.”

Eigeman persisted. “I do think that dancing, for you,” he told Stillman, “is sort of perfect in a way, because on the one front, it’s this very codified way of genders intermixing. It’s both intimate but very, very public.”

“The other thing,” Eigeman added a moment later, “is that you look incredibly silly when you do it.”

No Stillman movie has demonstrated Eigeman’s observations more clearly than Damsels in Distress, which features drunken frat-party dancing, line dancing, tap dancing, Broadway-style dancing, and a brand new, Stillman-invented “international dance craze” known as the Sambola! (The exclamation point is part of the name. So is “international dance craze.”) But throughout his 22-year, four-film cinematic career, Stillman has repeatedly turned to dancing for its potential as a narrative allegory, as a plot device, and as a remnant of the old social order he seems to long for. And also, yes, to underscore his characters’ lovable eccentricities.

Take Metropolitan, Stillman’s first film, which features a dance scene within its first 10 minutes. At the first of many after-parties thrown by the film’s coterie of young, upper-class Manhattanites, Chris Eigeman’s character puts on a cha-cha record and teasingly asks one of his female friends to dance. “Completely ridiculous,” she replies. “Now, the cha-cha is no more ridiculous than life itself,” retorts Eigeman, and we don’t know whether or not he’s kidding. He succeeds in rousing everyone to dance but Tom and Audrey, whom he pesters to the beat of the music: “Tom, Audrey, cha-cha-cha. Tom, Audrey, cha-cha-cha.” This is, of course, foreshadowing: The remainder of the film consists of Tom and Audrey doing the frustrating dance that would-be lovers often do in which their romantic interest in each other seems to fluctuate in equal but opposite directions.

That metaphor may be heavy-handed, but dancing takes on more nuanced meanings in Stillman’s second film, Barcelona, an account of the complicated relationship between two American cousins, Fred (Eigeman) and Ted (another Stillman regular, Taylor Nichols), living in the titular Spanish city near the end of the Cold War. Early in the film, while Ted is dancing in a disco, Fred tells a few credulous Spanish ladies that his cousin’s silly facial expression can be attributed to the fact that he’s wearing “narrow leather straps drawn taut” underneath his clothes. Fred is teasing—Ted is the furthest thing from a kinkster—but the line hints at the impossible-to-escape sexual undertones of mixed-company dancing.

In another scene, Fred walks in on Ted reading the Bible while doing a few high kicks to Glen Miller’s “Pennsylvania 6-5000.” Later on, Ted dances with the beautiful Monserrat (Tushka Bergen) at the disco; then the camera takes his point of view and he explains in a voiceover that he’s fallen in love with her. (“I think it was during a Donna Summer song that it really happened, or at least that I realized it had. Everything was completely different now.”) And much later, when Fred is recovering from a coma (during which, it must be mentioned, he was read a scene from War and Peace that describes Natasha awaiting a ball in ecstasy), one of his first recovered memories is “something about a limbo stick.” Dance, in Barcelona, has the power to awaken not only sexual desire but also religious revelation, true love, and dormant memories.

As you might expect, The Last Days of Disco, Stillman’s third film, further explores the power of dance to move and inspire. It takes place primarily in a New York City disco in the “very early 1980s.” Stillman pits his preppy, disco-obsessed heroes against an increasingly disco-hostile culture. Some have explained the “Disco Sucks” attitude as an expression of latent homophobia and racism, but gay and black people play only bit parts in The Last Days of Disco. Instead, Stillman presents the nightclub as a bastion of genteel, upper-class values. When the decline of disco is obvious, Stillman’s seeming mouthpiece in the movie, Josh, makes an impassioned speech in its defense. “It will always live in our minds and hearts,” he declares, even if “for a few years, maybe many years, it’ll be considered passé and ridiculous.” Tellingly, at the end of his apologia, Josh admits that he was really trying to get pumped up for a job interview, but he mostly believes what he said—a hint, perhaps, that though Stillman exaggerates the bourgeois affectations of his characters for comic effect, he still mostly believes what they say.

Damsels in Distress, Stillman’s latest, elevates dancing to a full-blown philosophy of life. Violet (Greta Gerwig), the eccentric heroine (whom Stillman has admitted relating to “hugely”) thinks that starting an international dance craze is the apotheosis of service to humanity: A dance craze, she explains, can positively affect the lives of every individual and couple. Her heroes are Strauss, Charleston, and Checkers: ostensibly the pioneers behind (respectively) the waltz, Charleston, and twist. She thinks tap dancing has the power to cure depression.

Violet is also as old-fashioned as they come when it comes to gender roles: She thinks women’s gentle, patient femininity has the power to soften men’s boorishness and nudge them to realize their full potential. She persists in this way of thinking even after her oaf of a boyfriend dumps her. In Damsels in Distress, dancing goes hand in hand with conservative mores—and a dislike of dancing goes hand in hand with liberal ones: the freethinking, anal-sex-having Lily doesn’t even bother to show up on time to the debut of Violet’s Sambola!

In Damsels, the dancing is more choreographed than it was in Stillman’s first three movies; with the exception of the frat-party scene at the beginning, the film’s dance scenes are preplanned, rehearsed performances. (And about that frat-party scene: never in the history of the world has any real-life college student danced with such decorum and innocent glee. No groping or grinding here!) Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the dialogue, too, is more studied, stylized, and meticulous than ever—which is saying something: Stillman’s dialogue is itself a kind of choreography, a polished, idealized version of the jumbled, ungrammatical musings that fall out of real people’s mouths. Which reflects how Stillman sees cinema: not as a mirror held up to the world, but as a dream of what life might be if everyone spoke more deliberately, acted more high-mindedly, and danced far more regularly.