Whit Stillman is back. The writer-director of Metropolitan, Barcelona
and The Last Days of Disco was thought to have retired, his career
having not stirred since 1999. But no. Apparently he's just been
writing scripts that no-one would fund. Until this one.
Damsels in Distress is a college comedy about a group of girls all
named after flowers who spot vulnerable new additions to the roster
and try to help them, through their Suicide Prevention Centre ("They
say with illness, prevention is nine-tenths the cure. With suicide,
it's actually ten-tenths.") There's no counselling or medication, just
free doughnuts, unlicensed aromatherapy and tap dancing. This being
college, and this being Stillman, plenty of the story also regards
romantic entanglements with frat boys, a "playboy-or-operator-type"
and a Spanish religious zealot.
The film is brimming over with that unique, hilarious Stillman dialogue
we've been missing for the last 13 years: cool people "lacking
humanity", confusion over the spelling of the name "Zorro", and
references to a time before anyone "started being nice to weird and
unpopular kids". He's a wildly subversive writer, with a distinctive
and fiercely individual viewpoint, seeing everything from a fresh
angle. In Metropolitan his characters criticised "public transport
snobs" who wouldn't take taxis, called socialist philosophers
"patronising" and pontificated on the discreet, oft-overlooked charm of
the bourgeoisie. In Barcelona, the virtues and vices of American
imperialism were dissected in typically offbeat fashion. And in The
Last Days of Disco, Stillman suggested the death of Bambi's mother was
a formative incident for an entire generation that consequently
embraced animal rights. It makes you think that Stillman would make one
hell of an essayist. He's certainly one hell of a filmmaker. Here he
offers an absurdist take on pushy parents and laments the degeneration
of homosexual culture, from Wilde to macho posturing.
As always, he gives his characters absurd, unforgettable back stories.
In the past we've had a supposedly gifted student fail a crucial exam
because a girl kept snapping her bra strap, and the tragic tale of
Polly Perkins, which shed light on the many wrongdoings of
Metropolitan's heinous Rick von Sloneker. Here there are several,
including those of queen bee Violet (Greta Gerwig), slickster Charlie
and the blank-faced Thor, who's going to "hit the books really hard" in
order to learn his colours. Stillman makes much in his films of
affectations and the projected image and there are big lies again here,
as Stillman returns to his favourite theme: the search for identity and
a purpose in life. These are characters in flux: they change and
solidify before our eyes. And then, quite often, they pair off.
It's hard to describe the plot. Really it's the antithesis of formula
filmmaking: novelistic and unpredictable, with constant diversions and
twists you can't anticipate, as in real life. And in a sense it is like
real life, only with better dialogue and a taste for the fantastical.
Stillman has always had a delightfully unselfconscious fondness for
dancing. His films have had limbo competitions, "bible-dancing", a
formal dance and an entire film based around disco, with a climax set
to Love Train, in which people shimmy along a train carriage. In
Damsels, all Gerwig wants to do in life is help people and start an
international dance craze. Her unskilled jaunt down a dorm room
corridor is a highlight, before the film passes into genuine musical
territory, exploding into an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza for
its closing five minutes. Fittingly, the number Stillman chooses,
Things Are Looking Up, is one of the loveliest from A Damsel in
Distress - the 1937 Fred Astaire film. Leaping into musical territory
is a filmic trick that can go very badly wrong, but it's done with such
sincerity and such a genuine love for the genre that it's a move of
The cast is largely excellent. Gerwig was a heroine of the "Mumblecore"
genre before her break-out performance opposite Ben Stiller in
Greenberg. Speaking in that curious way common to all the director's
central characters and asked to essentially carry the film in an
extremely tricky part, she's absolutely magnetic: juggling conflicting,
contrasting character traits from one moment to the next, as her
character variously finds and loses herself, helps and hinders others
and may be either a life-saver or a joke. Analeigh Tipton plays Lily,
who, as a new addition to the group, is forced to wrestle with their
peculiarities, whilst negotiating a love life that sees her
periodically deceived, confused and asked to have sex in an
uncomfortable way. It's another busy part and she's fine in it. It took
me a little while to acclimatise to the English Rose (Megalyn
Echikunwoke), but she, erm, grew on me increasingly throughout the
movie. The fourth member of the group, Heather (Carrie MacLemore), a
principle-light dummy, seems a strangely conventional part, at least on
first viewing, but MacLemore tackles it with gusto.
The performances from the men aren't as uniformly strong. Adam Brody is
good as strategic developer Charlie, and Billy Magnussen makes an
amusing idiot, but Ryan Metcalf as the blue-eyed, fairly
unattractive, fairly unintelligent Frank is a touch inconsistent, and
Hugo Becker isn't great as Lily's unconventional Latin lover. Perhaps
the best of the bunch is Zach Woods in a cinematic first: the Chris
Eigeman character not played by Chris Eigeman.
I like Whit Stillman more than any other modern filmmaker: for his
glorious dialogue, challenging, surprising worldview and superbly-drawn
characters. On a first viewing, Damsels is a worthy addition to the
canon, with the slightly underwhelming digital visuals quickly
forgotten thanks to an engrossing, meandering story, superb work from
Gerwig and a script that has more great lines than anything I've seen
so far this decade. But who watches Whit Stillman films just once?
Barbarians, that's who. It's only repeat viewings that will reveal the
precise depths of Damsels' myriad charms.
(Even longer review is on the blog.)