Thursday, April 26, 2012

Damsels in Distress Movie Review

Damsels in Distress is Whit Stillman’s fourth film and his first in 14 years. If his first three films fit together as a sort of trilogy (some characters cross over) of early 1980s Urban Haute Bourgeoisie (a term created by one of his characters in Metropolitan, Stillman’s first film), then this one takes off in a new if slightly familiar direction. For one thing, Damsels in Distress is his first film that focuses almost exclusively on female lead characters (he even gives them the title). More importantly, whereas Stillman’s earlier films were grounded in the real world, his latest has a setting that belongs more in the realm of fantasy.


The one binding element is Stillman’s stylistic writing that has everyone speaking in hyper-intellectual sentences, spouting aphorisms of the over-educated type. Keep in mind I don’t mean that as criticism – I love the way his characters speak. Where he falters this time is the writing of the male frat boys, characters who are supposed to be morons in the eyes of the women, but are written in such brutish caricature that one discovers that he doesn’t even know his colors (it turns out it’s because of over-achieving parents who skipped him past kindergarten).

The damsels in question are, at the start, Violet, Heather, and Rose. Violet is the self-anointed leader of this little trio that becomes a foursome when they take a new transfer student, the demure and mousy Lily. Violet does the majority of the talking as the girls explain their modus operandi. Their school, Seven Oaks College, was the last of the Seven Sisters schools to go coed and therefore suffers the most of the moronic vulgarities foisted upon it by the presence of dirty, smelly frat boys. Violet sees it as incumbent upon them, the socialized intellectual class, not to shun them, but to help them. And what better way to help them than by dating them. There is a great deal of awkward humor and cheap laughs at the expense of the dumb frat boys that’s unbecoming a Whit Stillman film. At times it feels more like one of those terrible self-aware parodies.

Violet, played by an impeccable Greta Gerwig (an actress born to star in a Whit Stillman movie), is romantically involved with Frank (Ryan Metcalf), a boy whose interaction with the world could most charitably be called dull. Analeigh Tipton brings a gawky and sweet nature to Lily and really makes her feel like an outsider stepping into a role she never quite feels confident in. Heather and Rose (Carrie MacLemore and Megalyn Echikunwoke) have less to do and are written as kind of filler. Heather has a touch of southern belle while Rose has a prim and proper London accent that may just be a little too precise. The girls also run a Suicide Prevention Center, where they provide free Dunkin’ Donuts and coffee only to those who are truly suicidal, a rule they must strictly adhere to given their non-profit status, and jump into panic mode when they hear of a depressed girl named Priss (Caitlin Fitzgerald) who recently suffered a breakup. One of Violet’s major tenets is that the restorative power of tap dancing is the best panacea for depression and suicidal thoughts. This is just part and parcel of the fantasy that Stillman creates.

The film is ostensibly set in the modern day (an oblique reference to a mid-90s dance song by The Real McCoy as a “golden oldie” places the time setting), but there is little additional evidence to place them in the new millenium. The girls dress like they belong to the innocence of the 1950s. There is nary a cell phone or computer visible on screen and, though sex presumably happens, it is something rarely thought of discussed. The main exception to this rule being Lily’s relationship with a French graduate student named Xavier (Hugo Becker), an adherent to Catharism, a 12th century sect of Christianity that proscribes procreative sex. Stillman’s fantasy creation is so convincingly rendered that it’s not even a stretch when several of Lily’s friends have trouble understanding what kind of sex they’re having if it’s not “from the front.”

Whit Stillman was in many ways the natural successor to Woody Allen in making films about intellectuals in New York – his opening credits are an obvious hat tip to Woody. Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson took it to another place and in Stillman’s decade and a half absence he seems to have adopted a style of filmmaking that more resembles Anderson than the other way around. The self conscious set design is not quite as cluttered with bric-a-brac, but there’s a closing song and dance number that could come right out of Wes Anderson crossed with Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You. Doug Emmett’s cinematography creates a soft focus palette that looks a lot like a 1970s TV movie. There’s one scene with the Damsels walking in the sunlight that looks like the film was overexposed as the bright rays strike Violet’s blonde hair, letting you know that you’re not watching something meant to be taken as any real place. It’s more like Oz, a place where bright colors and song signal a world where troubles can be forgotten.

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