To The Rescue! by Josh Long
If you’re anything like me, you were thrilled to hear that Whit Stillman has a new movie coming out – his first since 1998’s The Last Days of Disco. While he’s certainly a favorite among film lovers, Stillman can be a tough nut to crack. He populates his films with characters who might be unlikable in a different world, and almost everyone talks like a Harvard graduate thesis. But somehow he makes this dialogue a joy to listen to, and he provides sympathy for even the stuffiest “young, upwardly-mobile professionals.” Damsels in Distress is another example of Stillman’s crisp, hyper-literate dialogue, though it may not have as sure a footing as his “yuppie trilogy.”
Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her college friends have taken it upon themselves to “better the lives” of their classmates at Seven Oaks University. This involves everything from running the Suicide Prevention Center to sending soap to the grungier men’s dorms. The girls make it a point to dress well, wear nice perfume, and stand out as an example to those around them. They take transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) under their wing at the start of the film, and she becomes our inroad into the world of these “revolutionaries.” As the story progresses, depression, romantic entanglements, and self-centeredness all seem to muddle their positive outlook on college life.
At first the film may seem odd. Violet and her brood stick out like sore thumbs, unrealistically refined in a modern university setting. On top of that, there is the verbose dialogue, all making these characters seem unbelievable. But as we move deeper into the film, it becomes clear that these characters are not meant to fit. They choose to be different because their goal (for better or worse) is to rescue and refine the typical coed. Still, it should be noted that Damsels in Distress occupies an alternate reality, where even eighth-year seniors can speak at length about the “decline of decadence.” If this elevated attitude is a distraction for viewers, it certainly will be so for the entire film.
While each of the characters have their own interesting arcs, Violet’s is the most complex, though she seems so simple. We expect her to be a self-righteous do-gooder (many of the film’s other characters describe her as such) but her willingness to accept criticism and “chastisement” is unusual. She seems psychologically unable to condemn even her nominal boyfriend and the girl with whom he cheats on her. Also, for all the heightened talk, she’s no elitist. Her highest ambition is to start an “international dance craze.” She desperately wants to help people and be somebody, and there’s a loneliness behind her eyes betraying that she’s never sure she knows how.
Despite the deep character struggles, the film is certainly a comedy. Much of the dialogue is clearly played for laughs, even when delivered with full sincerity. This gives a sarcastic quality to the film, which sometimes undercuts its effectiveness. We may bobble back and forth wondering if we are supposed to sympathize with a character, or laugh at him. In the same way, the frat boy characters of the film are such extreme rubes, it’s hard to accept. One character, Thor, has made it all the way to college without learning the colors. Another, Frank, can barely write and speaks like a caveman. The idea, I suppose, is that these are hyperbolic depictions of the average Greek, but even in this alternate reality it seems unrealistic, and even mean-spirited.
The structure is a little strange as well, and it’s difficult to tell whether it is abnormal to the point where it hurts the film. The plot is not so complex to drive the editing. It’s somewhere between plot-driven, character study, and slice of life. There are occasional intertitles, less to break the movie into acts than to introduce an idea. Some of these titled segments last for only a few minutes, before moving onto something completely different. Stillman’s films have all been of a similar style; they jump forwards when the filmmaker is done showing us something. But it seems that there’s an unsteadiness here, maybe leaving in segments that don’t necessarily help the story, or cutting short sequences that could use more development.
All this said, there are certainly enough elements of the film to make it enjoyable. Violet’s depression and dilemma have a stirring depth, that brings out more the more one thinks about it. This is due not only to the writing, but to an excellent performance by Greta Gerwig. She’s a very talented and malleable actress, and one who can see more in this character than is on the page. Some of those in her brood are heightened stereotypes, but Gerwig creates an enigma in the character that begs further contemplation.
As always, the dialogue is quick and witty. It’s full of loving jabs at the intellectuals, most coming indirectly from would-be intellectuals themselves. And none of the characters (even the dimwitted frat boys) are ever thrown to the wolves. The film at least attempts to give everyone a humanism that prevents us from categorizing them as one-dimensional antagonists. Although there’s sadly no Chris Eigeman this time around, the faithful will recognize Taylor Nichols, apparently reprising his role from Metropolitan as a grown-up Charlie Black.
It is exciting to see a master filmmaker like Whit Stillman stepping back out from the shadows to return to his art. Even though Damsels in Distress is a step back from The Last Days of Disco, there is a clear glimmer of his wit and attention to character study. Hopefully, this is Stillman testing the waters as he plans to jump back in to the world of cinema.