April 3, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Damsels in Distress

by Vadim Rizov

Damsels in Distress

"What the world needs to work properly is a large mass of normal people," transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) concludes near the end of Damsels in Distress. With his fondness for preppily dressed, decorous men and women behaving discreetly, writer/director Whit Stillman also seems to believes this, but he's too in love with eccentrically posited aphorisms for their own sake to make a convincing case for bland societal assimilation. Here, his leading lady is Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig, mastering Stillman's unusual cadences), her name a self-created yoking of two different flowers. Violet's a college student who leads a small, Clueless clique of self-appointed social reformers dedicated to helping "young people crying out for guidance."

This sounds terribly condescending, and one of the nicest jokes is that Violet's literally out of her mind, a former OCD kid prone to depression whose sharp comic timing is the result of mental imbalance. Adding Lily to her small clique introduces both romantic competition and dissent not forthcoming from Violet's two acolytes: boringly prim Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), who insists every single male on the planet is a "playboy type oper-a-tor" (a joke the film beats into the ground through repetition) and dim but insistent Heather (Carrie MacLemore).

Damsels in Distress

It's been 14 years since Stillman's last effort, The Last Days of Disco, hit theaters, but he's still depicting the lives of privileged oddballs in embryonic emotional flux as if nothing had changed. His clipped dialogue is as distinctively stylized as David Mamet's, his characters communicating in an initially jarringly precious code that turns comfortably familiar within minutes. Though Stillman once identified as a conservative—writing snotty why-vilify-businessmen? columns for The American Spectator—he now prefers to label himself apolitical, and at the very least he's no social conservative. One of the best jokes concerns Lily's courtship by older, antagonistically intellectual French grad student Xavier (Hugo Becker), who nonchalantly justifies his mandatory requirement of exclusively anal sex by expounding on his adherence to Catharism, a gnostic-ish Christian sect eradicated by the 14th century. If this seems like taking an exceedingly long, disingenuous route to making a big request, it's even more amusing when Xavier later renounces his beliefs not because Lily walked out on him, but because he couldn't respect a religion that made Tuesday its Sabbath. 

Stillman's characters often similarly ignore the big picture, zeroing in fussily on arcane distinctions. The present day is more or less totally ignored on campus, depicted to the strains of a score co-written by Fountains of Wayne's Adam Schlesinger. His cues sound like '80s campus comedies, full of cheap synth string sections and cheesy guitar, but Stillman maintains distance from the subgenre's gross-out staples, aside from including a cheeky, would-be obligatory frat house "Roman days" celebration the girls disdain as a sign of the End Times, even as they play along by dressing in togas.

Damsels in Distress

Violet learns to wear her neuroses externally, while Lily embraces her desire for calm conformity: the rise and gradual fall of Violet and Lily's friendship is the film's emotional backbone, keeping it from total shapelessness. Damsels in Distress would make a great double-feature with Gregg Araki's wildly dissimilar but equally indulgent essence-of-auteur Kaboom, which splatters onto the screen everything Stillman tastefully elides. Both feature dim guys named Thor: this film's incarnation (Billy Magnussen) gives a hilarious rant about how he shouldn't be mocked for literally not knowing the colors. Araki's vision is Bret Easton Ellis plus Repo Man, an '80s-reincarnated id explosion to Stillman's more archaic and restrained reference points: posters for The Earrings of Madame De... and Grand Illusion, a viewing of Truffaut's Stolen Kisses, the novels of Ronald Firbank.

There's much talk of religious morality as the basis for a life, often self-mockingly. Violet corrects herself when she says her goals follow simple Christian morality: "Judeo-Christian to be exact." Stillman seems to love manners for their own sake as a starting point for banter, not because he's overly worried about using them as a cudgel for moral instruction. Main male object of desire Charlie (Adam Brody) pines for the old days of "refined, hidden, sublimated" homosexuality, the words strung together as dubious synonyms that—the New York Times' Chip Brown noted—could be interpreted as meaning "the price of freeing gay men from the closet was too high because it produced a surfeit of illiterate beefcake."

Damsels in Distress

That admittedly seems like a stretch: it seems more like Stillman's utterly unconcerned about the implications of a bright verbal riff. Damsels mostly earns its right to exist in a delightful bubble. The pacing can lag, but the ending is aces. Without actually resolving their differences (the emotional negotiations and friendship shifts will go on for the rest of their life), the students tentatively face off, literally face the music and dance to Fred Astaire's rendition of the Gershwins' "Things Are Looking Up"—a song from 1937's A Damsel in Distress as the film ends with a glee-inducing leap into romantic musical comedy. Dance sequences are a Stillman trademark, but this one's not part of a debutante circuit party or discotheque revelry: it's a conscious leap into a fantasy past, undertaken with amateur goodwill by all involved. I'll be surprised if I see a more uplifting finale this year.

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Posted by ahillis at April 3, 2012 12:37 PM