Damsels in Distress

| April 17, 2012

It’s been 14 years since Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco. Over a decade without the director’s snappy humor and witty dialogue has been much too long. I must admit, my affinity for the director is quite new. But within the span of a week this past fall, I devoured his “doomed bourgeois trilogy” MetropolitanBarcelona, and The Last Days of Disco. Saying that, Whit’s latest effort, Damsels in Distress, looked terrible from the trailer. The now 60-year old director looked to be reliving a youth that had expired long ago. Casting Greta Gerwig, the Queen of Mumblecore, as the lead was another reason for worry.

Thankfully, I was completely wrong.

Damsels in Distress takes place in a typical Stillman setting – an ambiguous Ivy league campus. A group of damsels, led by the self-righteous Violet(Gerwig), are intent on dating less attractive men in order to boost their self-esteem. Though Lily(Tipton), the latest member of the group isn’t quite convinced on the “well intended, but un-humble” goal of the group. Thus the clash of high brows and low jokes commences.

(I refuse to ruin the rest of the plot because I want you to see this movie.)

Fans of Stillman know he is the master of subtlety. Thankfully, his soft spoken films have big purposes. If we think of Godard belonging better in French salon, Stillman would be more comfortable in a Victorian bed sitting room. In Damsels, we see the closest thing to modern cinema’s Oscar Wilde at his most omnipresent. There isn’t a line that goes by that doesn’t come straight Whit’s book of manners. Adam Brody and Gerwig have commented in interviews that, “no swearing was allowed on set” and “Whit is very chaste. He doesn’t like a lot of public affection, but loves affection.” Whit’s opinion on manners and how we conduct ourselves are never more prevalent in Damsels, which hinders viewers that don’t agree with him. Thankfully for fans of the director, we do.

What would a Whit film be without a dance number? From the ‘Cha-Cha’ in Metropolitan, inappropriately timed limbo in Barcelona, all of Last Days of Disco, to finally the “Sambola” in Damsels in Distress.  The driving force behind Gerwig’s character – to be remember for starting a dance craze like ‘The Charleston’ or ‘The Twist’ – seems like a mutual goal of Stillman’s.  Besides showing his love of Hollywood musicals and elegant dance numbers from Jacques Demy, Whit makes his influences vividly apparent in Damsels. We see plastered over above Violet’s mirror a poster for Max Ophul’s Lola Montes. Later, during one of the “wooing” scenes, a character uses Truffaut’s Stolen Kisses as a “playboy” pick up move.

So how does Damsels compare with Whit’s previous efforts? It passes with flying colors. Gerwig is somehow able to channel the attractive nature that we loved so much in Last Days of Disco and make up for (at least a little) the absence of Chris Eigeman. The other three damsels- Lily(Analeigh Tipton), Rose(Megalyn Echikunwoke), and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) fit right in as hopefuls to the Stillman universe. Even Aubrey Plaza, who’s presence usually makes me cringe, makes a small cameo that creates some big laughs.

 Instead of aging his bourgeois boys & girls, (we see a few familiar faces in the film), Stillman goes back to school. If anything,  Damsels seems more like a prequel to Metropolitan Damsels in Distress is an entertaining film that works well as a comedy and a drama. Where one fails, the other makes makes up for it. While the films of Whit Stillman are not for everyone, Damsels is a good primer for beginners and seasoned fans. It’s charming, funny, and compelling. Plus, how many movies make us want to get up and dance?

About the Author:

Daniel currently resides in New York City working as a freelance writer and director. He is a graduate of the Film and Video department of Columbia College, specializing in Italian Neo-realism and French & British New Wave cinema.
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