DIR/WRI/PRO: Whit Stillman • DOP: Doug Emmett • ED: Andrew Hafitz • DES: Elizabeth J. Jones • Cast: Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn EchikunwokeNicola Marzano
I want to get one point across immediately. The trailer for Whit Stillman’s Damsels In Distress is not representative of its wit, humour and style. If you cringed while watching it, I don’t blame you, but the film itself is of much higher quality than the trailer suggests. It’s almost worth a watch if only to see how much a trailer can obliterate the actual style and tone in an attempt to reach as wide an audience as possible.
Lily, a recent transfer to Seven Oaks college, is immediately taken under the wing of a group of sophisticated, well-meaning but absurd women, who function to prevent any potential suicides from happening. The anachronistic gang, led by Greta Gerwig’s Violet, is totally separate from their peers, saying that they’re the same age as the ‘young people’ that they are trying to help but only only in a numerical sense. Using unconventional methods, such as an insistence on personal hygiene and dance therapy, they aim to make student life a better place.
Eventually, everyone in the cast seems to drop in and out of some sort of potential relationship. Lily has two bizarre admirers, while Violet eventually loses the dim-witted love of her life to one of the students she tried to help. The film charts the ups and downs of their path through college life and there isn’t a clear end point in sight throughout the film. I found myself chuckling every few minutes, and there are several absurd moments that produced belly laughs. A storyline involving a young student named “Thor” who has never learned how to distinguish colours is particularly clever and hilarious.
Lily, the outsider, is the only one who actually engages in sex, as everyone else seems more interested in old fashioned courtship. Like his debut film, Metropolitan, the rare moment of sex is quite perverse, but adds some bit of balance to what might be perceived as a ‘twee’ tone. Even though it’s been 14 years since Stillman has made a film, his style has not changed a bit. The dry, absurd humour, dense dialogue, ‘preppy’ socialites, even that abrupt Stillman fade out, all make an appearance.
Greta Gerwig is absolutely wonderful as Violet. She carries the film in a role that, if misjudged, would cause everything else to suffer. Gerwig’s charisma and skill carries the audience through any potential cringe-inducing moments, such as any of the dance scenes. Her character, the daughter of writers, is incredibly well spoken and intelligent, with most of the humour coming from how misdirected this intelligence is. Stillman is very much aware of the absurdity of the film’s premise, and anticipates the questions and concerns of the audience. Some of the inconsistencies and quirks in Violet’s worldview are pointed out early in the film by Lily, and are humorously addressed.
Lily, our entry point into this world, is mostly functional, to the extent that some attempts to flesh out her character seem tacked on. She even disappears for a large chunk of the film with little explanation other than Violet’s arc requiring more screen time. She brings the values and judgements of reality into the blissfully ignorant innocence of Seven Oaks, and she is plain annoying at times as a result. When the film focuses on her, it’s as if a totally different film has been spliced in.
This is not simply a quirky chick flick, it’s a charming comedy that revels in absurd humour and wit. Lovers of language will have a ball, but anyone teased by the wacky hijinks of the trailer will be disappointed. It’s a shame that the film is marketed as it is, as I know that I would have stayed well clear of it had I not seen Stillman’s earlier films.
Kieran O Leary
Rated 15A (see IFCO website for details)
Damsels In Distress is released on 27th April 2012