Sunday, 29 April 2012

Damsels In Distress (Whit Stillman, 2011) Review

Carrie MacLemore, Greta Gerwig and Megalyn Echikunwoke in Damsels In Distress...

If Metropolitan (1990) proved anything of its writer-director Whit Stillman, debutant extraordinaire and all-round indie darling, it's that he was once destined to become the next great American novelist, but somehow got sidetracked writing screenplays. With one stroke of the pen Stillman redefined the term comedy-of-manners, centering his after-dinner drama around the social lives of six living, breathing affectations; young intellectuals lost in the swell of Manhattan's debutante season. One of their company, the "walking op-ed column" Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols), coined the term which describes them best - U.H.B (Urban Haute Bourgeoisie) - and kicks off the thread which defines Stillman's celebrated directorial decade, also including Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days Of Disco (1998). In all of these films, but particularly in Metropolitan, the characters talk in a way which is very written, employing adjoining words such as "therefore" and "nevertheless" to link chains of thought which, come the closing frame, provide an overall thesis for the picture. This technique is present in much of the director's work, and it's something which I've found hard to get along with in the past. What I have enjoyed is the bite to his screenplays, the intellectual barbarism, zingers and self-deprecation, but there's always been a twinkle in Stillman's eye waiting for the proper treatment - best exemplified by the impromptu dance number which closes Last Days Of Disco. Damsels In Distress, the director's first film in fourteen years, finds him mellowed and perhaps embracing that twinkle - after all, at 60 years of age he's just made his first college comedy...

The premise revolves around Violet (Greta Gerwig), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), a daffy trio of do-gooders at Seven Oaks College. They're a well intentioned but deeply misguided bunch, and loathed by a campus majority - especially the persuasive Complainer editor Rick DeWolfe (Zach Woods; very much a young Chris Eigeman). Violet, the group's Mother Superior, believes that donuts and tap-dancing are the natural remedy to suicidal despair, and her lifelong mission is to create an all-new dance craze: The Sambola! (steps for which are included before the film's footnotes). The girls recruit a new student, Lily (Analeigh Tipton), into their ranks, but this newcomer doesn't instantly take to the idiosyncratic behavior of her bunkmates. They share ideas about love and relationships, subjects which Violet knows little of but waxes lyrical on nonetheless. Her advice is for people not to date guys/girls they find physically attractive, or would rank as "cooler" then themselves, for this will inevitably end in tears and tragedy. The seeds of this idea (along with an instrumental variation on the film's main theme tune) were laid in Stillman's Barcelona, where stuffy Illinois businessman Ted (Taylor Nichols) resolves "to go out only with plain, or even homely girls", confessing to having "a real romantic illusion problem." The same could be said for Violet, who views the world in straighter emotional lines than most, but suffers from extreme self-delusion and emotional repression (she even changed her name before starting college, attempting to erase the memories of her previous life).

Oddly though, if it weren't for the specificity of Stillman's language, its hyper-intellectualism and parched wit, one might be forgiven for not recognizing Damsels In Distress as one of his works. The dialogue here still feels written, and still progresses with an overarching thesis, but it also operates within tonal boundaries which the director has not explored before. Visually it's a much cleaner, brighter film than anything in his back-catalogue - some shots are so bathed in light that they're practically blinding, and colours of pink and yellow prevail the palette. His camera is less static than usual; it glides through the action, producing a rhythm which is almost dance-like (although much slower than the Sambola!, or even tap). Even considering that this is the director's first film set in the "present", it feels like his most old-fashioned to date. As noted by Roger Ebert in his review, there's an element of P.G. Wodehouse at play here, as there is 40's musicals and 60's teen movies. There's an outright rejection of all that is deemed "cool" or even modern, with no mention of cell phones or Facebook but an abundant sense of joy and optimism, even in the face of overwhelming college suicide statistics. This really is a world where donuts and tap shoes can resolve the most worrisome of plights, or at least have the potential to.

With this in mind it's easy to understand why audiences have been charmed by Damsels, but for this reviewer the film's extreme artificiality and self-conscious whimsy became wearing. The biggest problem is Violet, and specifically Gerwig's monotone interpretation of the character, which emphasizes every syllable and nuance in her speech. Megalyn Echikunwoke is equally annoying as Rose, whose affected English accent makes the pronunciation of a repeated phrase, "playboy operator", particularly unbearable. It feels almost as if Stillman was searching with each character to find new ways of getting under my skin. Thor (Billy Magnussen), for example, is so imbecilic that he can't differentiate between colours, and suffers an emotional breakdown when facing a rainbow - honestly, he's the sort of lunkheaded frat boy who makes Spicoli look like Stephen Hawking. Some may find him endearing, but it's hard to care for such characters knowing that they're designed specifically by Stillman as projects for Violet's matchmaking initiative, which is cruller than it might initially seem. In fact, behind her cropped blonde locks and attentive eyes, Violet is a deeply unlikable protagonist, and her vulnerability a poor excuse for the most extraordinary prejudice and conceit. If this is truly Whit Stillman's Mean Girls, as some critics have suggested, then Violet is surely the answer to Rachel McAdams' Regina George, but to me the character seems much more in-tune with Pretty Persuasion's Kimberly (Evan Rachel Wood). Violet isn't anywhere near as fickle or downright malicious as Kimberly, and certainly not as self-consciously so, but her principles are as deeply misguided and ultimately damaging.

It'd be unfair and perhaps even wrong of me to call Damsels In Distress a bad film, for its tone and characters are consistent, the writing sharp, and there are chuckles to be had along the way. Stillman has crafted the sort of film which will be sweet to some and sour to others, but for me its aftertaste was particularly unpleasant. The top-tapping finale feigns optimism, tying its character's arcs into a neat little bow and waving them off on, yep, a dance number, but I can't help wondering what'll happen to these people when they leave college, separate and enter the real world, or at least this kookily askew version of it. I suspect that the adorable Heather will be ripped to shreds, and Violet isolated and sneered at by her peers. She's the sort of girl you'd have moved colleges to avoid, and if she'd had any sense Lily would have done so in the opening minutes, saving us the pain of this maddening and often depressing picture.

Damsels In Distress is in cinemas now...


  1. This is the best review of Damsels I've read. I felt claustrophobic and queasy throughout, as if a schoolmarm had thrust a book in my face and ordered me to start reading -- now! Not only was Violet exasperating, but the attempts to visualize the themes were very slight, and awkward. For example, boys with offensive body odor and soap as aromatherapy. Stillman failed to create a memorable picture for either of these ideas. I felt that the over-the-top stupidity of the frat boys was offensive, as if people who don't talk like Whit Stillman are slow and dim-witted. The film was also unusual in that the sound design and the pictures seemed disconnected. In all, an essay about college kids, not a movie.

  2. Hi! Thanks for the kind words on my review, and I'm in tandem with your criticisms - especially regarding the soap. The fact that one little bar of soap had an entire plotline revolve around it was quite infuriating, although I'm aware that for many people that segment would have been really charming. Queasy is an accurate way to describe how it made me feel. Like I said, sweet to some, sour to others. Thanks again for leaving a comment!