Damsels in Distress
(Whit Stillman, 2011, USA)
Arriving a hefty thirteen years after Whit Stillman’s previous directorial dalliance The Last Days of Disco, Damsels in Distress is the product of a long-gestating scuffle through the woes of contemporary film funding for the indie wordsmith, a film that appears muddled, charming and annoyingly eccentric in a variant of that exact order.
Set on the fictional campus of Seven Oaks, a college amuck with idiotic frat boys and elitist would-be journalists, the film stars queen of the Mumblecore movement Greta Gerwig as Violet, the delightfully deadpan (as ever) queen bee of a troupe of girls who have made it their personal mission to make the world a better place. Unlocking the medicinal powers of scented soap and offering the latest dejected newcomer to their self-run Suicide Prevention Centre coffee, donuts, and tap dance lessons, the girls go about rescuing their fellow students from unhealthy living and misguided relationships, all the while succumbing to the pitfalls of youth culture themselves.
To say that there is a discernible narrative through-line in Damsels would be a lie, and that is part of the film’s downside. Coasting along on Stillman’s customarily jazzy dialogue, with each scene sporting a variety of quick quips and pop culture laden bromides, Damsels in Distress is, effectively, a series of skits and light-hearted tableaux’s focusing on the various ups and downs of these laboriously superstitious young women. This allows for Stillman’s customarily verbose knack for literary patois to really shine, perfectly spouted by an extremely competent cast, particularly Gerwig, who, in her slow transition to the mainstream in films like the recent Russell Brand disaster Arthur, still maintains that alluring mixture of quirk and effortless wit. She can play characters like Violet in her sleep, and her presence almost literally lights up the screen, bathing the screen in a cheerfully warm glow that perhaps glosses over the intricacies of the plot and its touchy subject matter. From teenage suicide and depression to the “non-procreative” Cathar beliefs, Stillman tackles a variety of serious subjects but deals with them with the lightest of touches, where a profound, introspective monologue or a disarmingly twee dance number fixes every problem.
However, for all its sophistication, where the film falters is in the flippant attitude towards its own sense of humour. Poking fun at the fallibility of humanity, embodied by the breakdown of Violet’s composed demeanour when her relationship with goofball Frank (Ryan Metcalf) turns sour raises frequent laughs, but these scenes are deflated by a tendency to embrace silly gags, like Frank’s friend’s inability to recognise colours. The whole film plays out like a protracted and wispy dream sequence, where the walls between reality and idealised fantasy are eroded as easily as Stillman’s frequent fades to black. This is especially explored when Violet escapes the rose-tinted campus and stays in a motel adrift from the yuppie affluence of her closest friends, where she encounters a fateful bar of soap that she believes is the key to success, a comedic riff that is somewhat analogous of the wacky tone of the overall film.
It is easy to see that Stillman is creating something of a throwback to the charms of Fred Astaire musicals and the simplicities of human-to-human communication, standing out amongst an increasingly busy crowd of teen films amuck with social network-style abbreviations, and every scene and character feels as if it is fit to burst into song at any moment, a promise fulfilled by the clumsy musical finale, which is both inevitably kitsch and joyous. Yet what is unshakable is the way the film feels like an off-kilter joke and a prodding send up that rarely lets you in on its dry social commentary, instead depicting characters that rarely appear part of reality. Deliberately offbeat to the point of alienation, Damsels in Distress is, for want of a better term, undeniably quirky, and sometimes insufferably so, but it is also enchanting and amiable, a film that is as innocent as its setting but rarely amounting to anything as good as the sum of its parts.
(Original review can be found at Take One)