‘Damsels’ director discusses campus distress

Pic described as Jane Austen meets Judd Apatow

Whit Stillman, whose “Damsels in Distress” closes the Venice Festival on Saturday, still plans to make “Dancing Mood,” about young people in the Kingston, Jamaica, church music scene in 1962 through ’66.

“If I can’t set it up via traditional methods, we’ll use our own resources, do the film on a small budget,” he said.

For the moment, however, he is focusing on promoting “Damsels in Distress,” which Sony Pictures Classics has acquired for the world.

“Damsels” is a “refined frat comedy,” he told Variety — think Jane Austen meets Judd Apatow, rather than “Porky’s.”

“We cleaned ‘Damsels’ up,” Stillman said.

Like Stillman’s other films, “Damsels” focuses on the femme characters: Greta Gerwig, Megalyn Echikunwoke and Carrie MacLemore star as sophisticated girls studying at an East Coast university. They take a transfer student (Analeigh Tipton) under their wing, and attempt a major makeover of male barbaric campus life, counseling suspected suicides and introducing lantern-jawed jocks to such revolutionary concepts as a bar of soap. “Damsels” is semi-autobiographical and a tribute to contemporary co-ed existence, Stillman said.

“When I went back to university, everybody was going on about a group of girls who wore perfume and were just sensational, and people were having fun,” he said.”In my days, university was totally grim, socially, every other way.”

Stillman has spent his career revealing himself both on and off camera. In an early ’80s turn as an actor in Spain, he played an uptight American — who nonetheless has a nude bath scene — in Fernando Trueba’s “Sal gorda.”

In “Damsels,” Tipton’s character capitulates to the sexual demands of a French student.

Stillman said the film’s actors felt an affinity for his ’90s films — which he defines “as mumblecore with clear pronunciation.”

Dialogue is drolly fastidious in “Damsels,” as would be expected from the director of “Metropolitan.” At one point, Violet takes time off from dissing college men to discuss the plural of “doofus”: “Doofuses or doofi”?

“Both are correct. But we prefer ‘doofi’ even if it’s non-standard,” Stillman said.

For all its wit, however, “Damsels” shows a lot of both physical and emotional suffering. Gerwig’s character goes into “tailspin,” in her words, when she’s dumped by her b.f.

“University years are a time of great trauma for a lot of people. There is a lot of depression, finding or not finding your way. Many people go off the rails.”

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