Damsels in Distress
Details: 99mins, United States, English
Synopsis: Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her friends Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) ,Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Lily (Analeigh Tipton) are sophomores at a college campus which has recently become co-ed. In an attempt to teach the male students some manners, the girls set up a group that teaches good hygiene and musical dance numbers. Along the way, the friends dispense doughnuts, date boys and have their friendship tested by a male fraternity.
A welcome return from Whit Stillman.
Stillman always pays off eventually
MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Unlike other American indie directors of the early 1990s, Spike Lee or Hal Hartley, Whit Stillman didn’t go commercial or fizzle out, but stuck to his eloquent, if infrequently firing, guns. Though his talents have been underappreciated (that Oscar nomination for Metropolitan was a long time ago) and underutilised (what does he do in-between films?), he remains doggedly as difficult to describe as ever. Affected? Certainly. But with an appreciation of his own well-educated and lofty standards he continues with Damsels in Distress to consider youthful mortals trying to find happiness despite being handicapped with too much money, or advantage. As always, Stillman’s dialogue recalls J.D. Salinger and F. Scott Fitzgerald, but amongst his filmmaking contemporaries, his territory remains his own.
As in his previous films, the women of Damsels are almost impossibly beautiful. Willowly Lily (Analeigh Tipton) has transferred into a New England university and is immediately embraced “for her own protection” by a trio of concerned and protective young women. Lead by Violet (Greta Gerwig), who is part Doris Day and Diane Keaton, their principal concerns at the university are saving post-romance suicidal women and enlivening the lives of dull and not so-bright young men.
Unlike the adventures of Romy and Michelle or the Heathers or even the Austen–tatious girls of Clueless, this isn’t as simple as dumbness writ large. As silly as Violet’s philosophy of happiness might be, it is a philosophy. Here even the most nonsensical character is capable of expressing themselves in eloquent terms and all are regarded with genuine affection. Nor is the compassion reserved for just the damsels. How can you not feel sorry for a young male named Thor (Billy Magnussen), who was so smart that he was lifted out of kindergarten and prematurely deposited in grade school, with the unfortunate result that no one bothered to teach him colours?
More challenging is the cocktail of naïveté and education within Xavier (Hugo Becker), who tries to convince Lily of the need to have anal sex as a result of his obscure religious heritage. In the standard dumb comedy, this would be a clear con, but Xavier believes it too. The fooled and the self-deceiving (don’t we all participate, even when someone else is doing the lying?) is also present in another joke that Stillman lets run for so long without a punchline that it looks like a casting flaw. But Stillman always pays off eventually, even if the result is more often an internal intellectual laugh (“Ah yes, that’s funny”) than guffaw caused by the absurd intersection of unconnected elements.
The humour of Damsels is slightly broader than before as indicated by its musical number. Unlike Lee’s preciousness (She’s Gotta Have It) or Hartley’s jazzy knowingness (Simple Men), Stillman’s flirtation with the musical is more carefree. Regardless, the main effect is to renew appreciation of how perfect even the lowliest MGM musical could be. But as every Stillman film is a reservoir of irony, there’s always a refuge for the director who tries something that doesn’t always come off.
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