Damsels in Distress
April 13, 2012
Whit Stillman has talked quite a bit about ‘utopia’ in his interviews regarding his new film, Damsels in Distress, as well as the other three years in his sadly sparse body of work. There’s a sort of utopian ideal to the worlds he creates, though in his first three films (Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco), they all took place in closed-off societies. There were outcasts who didn’t fit in – notably Tom in Metropolitan – but on a whole they were closed off from the outside world. Damsels takes place at a fictional university that is a member of a fictional Ivy League equivalent. It’s a bizarre society, and its outlandish (though not quite cartoonish) characters hovering around the edges can be quite jarring. Stillman, it seems, decided to go broad, even incorporating some slapstick suicide attempts. It felt, for a while, and only in places, to be something of a disappointment.
Stillman, for those without the experience of 90s indie, trades in incredibly verbose light comedies, often exploring the privileged classes in an affectionate manner. His characters tend to be highly literate and about as unsure and confused as possible. The films are incredibly charming, but the characters tend to have a very real depth, even as he rarely resorts to anything approaching an acidic tone. People might act in prickish ways, but they’ve always got their reasons. So in light of his previous work, it’s strange to come across the frat boy Thor, who cannot identify the basic colours. Though the eventual explanation for this fact is clever and very, very funny, it’s one of the facets that make it very difficult to adjust to this world early on in the film. You can’t quite tell if he’s reaching too far, or where the group of women at the centre of the film fit within their wider society. They seem together, confident, and a bit like the Mean Girls clique of their university. The three core members are Violet (Greta Gerwig), the opinionated and occasionally smarmy leader of the group, her longtime friend Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and the somewhat ditzy Heather (Carrie MacLemore). Our entry point into this world is Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a transfer student who is early on tagged as a potential friend as well as being unhappy at her last school (she wasn’t). She rooms with the group and joins them in their work at the suicide prevention center, tap therapy, and in their quest to reform morons and losers from the Roman frats (they don’t have Greeks), which is seen as a better option that attempting to deal with the “Playboy or Operator” types.
Things get complicated when there’s a betrayal by a boyfriend, the introduction of a seemingly successful man, Charlie (Adam Brody), to both Lily and Violet’s life, a tailspin (not depression), and Lily’s graduate student paramour, who happens to be a devout Cathar. Running throughout is Violet’s desire to change the world by creating a dance phenomenon as well as her hopes to reform the school through soap and perfume (their university is one of the worst smelling in their league because it was the last to become co-ed).
Stillman is known for his idiosyncratic – occasionally ‘quirky’ – characters and their beliefs. I’d say that his work was a bigger influence than anything else on the TV series Gilmore Girls because of this, and not just because Stillman stalwart Chris Eigeman had an arc on the show. That mode is in full swing here, and it is endlessly delightful. At its most basic level, it’s an incredibly witty and funny film; the kind that one can’t help describe as ‘winning’. The supporting cast is across-the-board good, grounding these absurdities in a way that keeps the heightened nature of the dialogue without letting it fly off into full-blown whimsy. Tipton is very good as well, bringing the eye of a “normal” and openly questioning the logic and belief systems of the girls. Gerwig, however, is what holds it all together. Her occasional smugness is counteracted by a genuine optimism that eventually takes you by surprise. She seems to be off-putting and judgmental at first, but as the film goes on, you realize it isn’t so much about Lily realizing the absurdity of this group of friends, but that the group of friends, and specifically Violet, are the ones who have a better understanding of what they want to achieve and why. Note also the little moments, such as her dealing with her moron ex-boyfriend and his bean-ball, which exhibits a sense of accepting maternalism that really adds weight to the character’s interactions and ideals.
There are things here that don’t quite work. As already mentioned, getting adjusted is a bit difficult, and one might hope for a smoother transition to understanding the levels of broadness on display. There’s also a slightly disjointed feel, even if it isn’t as disjointed as it may seem. Despite some very funny moments, I don’t think Lily’s relationship with the Cathar is necessary, and that’s partly because there’s an unfortunate scene that was eerily reminiscent of a moment in Catherine Brelliat’s Fat Girl – something that should never be evoked in a light comedy.
Despite these minor missteps, it is, as the cliché goes, and incredibly charming and winning film. It is also, and I can’t stress this enough, very funny (the fact that the phrase “Playboy or Operator” just gets more hilarious as it gets repeated is something special). It feels loose and a little unfocussed on first viewing, but it’s exceptional in the way it ends with some delirious scenes that makes you realize how it was quite skillfully structured to build to these moments the whole time. Many will wonder if it was worth the 12-year wait; if one of the most distinct and beloved voices of the 90s came back with something worthwhile. It’s hard to tell on first viewing, as Stillman has never traded in obvious profundity. His work tends to be subtly shallow, or to crib a quote from the Pet Shop Boys, it achieves “depth through surface”. He certainly understands that college is less about ‘finding yourself’ than it is about ‘reinventing yourself’, and he takes it a step further by having Violet – much like Stillman himself – desperately try to reshape the world around her into her own personal ideal. Time will tell how significant it is in his oeuvre, but regardless of all of that, it is an incredibly enjoyable film, and surely that’s enough for now.