Review: Damsels in Distress

Damsels in Distress | Whit Stillman | 2012 | ★★★★

Looking at the four films that Whit Stillman has directed, Damsels in Distress is an oddity. It’s not only that it was his first film since The Last Days of Disco, way back in 1998, but it’s also a major step in a different direction for him. Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco (I have yet to see Barcelona) are very much grounded in reality, despite the often quirky comedic elements and unrealistic situation in them. The former takes place in New York and follows a group of youths from high society and what happens when one from more humble origins joins their group. The latter, meanwhile, gives you what is considered to be one of the most realistic portrayals of the disco scene, and segments featuring real footage of Disco albums being burned at baseball fields further adds realism to the whole thing. Both of these, despite being truly fictional stories, could easily have the “based on a true story” label, and no one would complain. Damsels, however, feels like it is Stillman’s first truly fictional narrative at just about every level.

Damsels in Distress opens with Violet (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) walking into a college orientation gathering for new students. There they spot Lily (Aneleigh Tipton), and right then they decide that she needs “help.” And so, to “help” they introduce her to their social causes: stopping suicides, class-up dumb frat boys, and clearing up the bad smells that radiate from one of the dorms. But just as she is inducted into this clique, things start to unravel for them as Lilly questions their motives, and things happen that forces some dark (and hilarious) secrets from Violet’s past to come to light.

The setting of the story is quiet possibly the biggest reason why I think this is such an odd film for Stillman. Instead of taking place in a real city such as New York or Barcelona, this film takes place in the fictional Seven Oaks College. We don’t know where it is, other than it is somewhere in the Northeast. In addition to this, the way the sets seemed to be constructed, with all the buildings looking like they were inspired by Roman architecture and with all of them being in close proximity to each other gives the film a dream-like feel to the film.

Also, there’s the characterizations. Every character in the film is divided into three groups. There’s the damsels, who are lovable losers who want to save the world; The stupid and/or stinky frat boys; and the rest are cynics who look down upon those other two groups. This further drives home the point of this being set in some sort of dreamland where classes barely matter and the worst things that happen are suicides and everyone in a dorm not ever showering.

So, where am I going with this? Well, once upon a time Whit Stillman was considered the voice of his generation. With him being part of the Baby Boomers, his first three films gave realistic portrayals of what it was like for that generation to come of age and what it was like for them to be young and fresh out of college. But now that he has said everything that he had to say on the subject, what was he going to do? So instead of trying to tell a story about people in their 60s, he brought his sensibilities to modern times, but not quite as you would expect. Damsels in Distress is a fantasy of what it would be like if the world today was just like it was during that post-World War II period of bliss in the United States (assuming, of course, that racism didn’t exist). To put it more simply, it is his view of today’s youth through the filter of a 1950s sitcom. You have your jocks doing stupid things, your geeks being all stinky, the cool kids being annoying, some women being sweet and wanting to help the world, and other women trying to break free from that mold. However, unlike a 1950s sitcom, this film has way more edge, taking on awkward sexual and social topics that combined with the style of the film, give us some greatest cinematic moments of the year. With these satirical aspects, his trademark witty dialogue and random, but brilliant comedic situations, Stillman has written one of the most clever and hilarious films of the year.

While the idea of having a 1950s style college comedy set in today’s world might be clever, it would have failed had the right artistic touches not been applied. Thankfully, Stillman is also a great director in addition to being a great writer, and this is his best work as a director yet. The claustrophobic set designs, the soft, pastel-colored lensing of Doug Emmet, and the preppy and colorful costumes by Ciera Wells (which would be my favorite of the year so far were it not for Mirror Mirror) capture the aura that film and television productions from the 50s and 60s give off, and Stillman puts them all to good use, with everyone of these aspects working as they should by giving the film a unique visual signature that does not overshadow the dialogue, which is what drives most of the comedy.

While on the subject of the dialogue, we must not forget the vessels through which it is delivered. While his work on the visual aspect is what makes this Stillman’s best directing effort, his dedication to getting great performances out of the cast should not be ignored. To the eyes of some the work of the actors may not be good given the deadpan nature of the dialogue which requires deadpan delivery. But there were so many ways every single cast member could have gone overboard with the dialogue, but no, everyone was perfect. Typically I would single out individual performances that I loved, but there’s no need to do so with this one. Well, I must say that Megalyn Echikunwoke delivers the word “operator” with her fake, posh British accent completely changed the way I think about the word. Now I can’t help but chuckle and imitate her every time I hear it.

Even though it was one of my most anticipated movies of the 2012, Damsels in Distress still managed to be one of the biggest surprises of the year. The thirteen-year break did Stillman some good as he delivered his most visually beautiful, funniest, and irreverent film yet. I wouldn’t be surprised if it stayed in my top ten of the year, especially if subsequent viewing prove to make the film better as I expect.

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