Up well

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Filmreviews -

WEL­COME BACK, Whit Still­man. Af­ter a decade in the wilder­ness, the di­rec­tor of Met­ro­pol­i­tan and The Last Days of Disco – talky films that make Mar­mite seem like a con­sen­sus choice – has once again de­liv­ered a work that will de­light as many movie­go­ers as it will ap­pal.

Still­man hap­pily ad­mits that he has in­spired the likes of Wes An­der­son, but Dam­sels in Dis­tress com­bines bold jokes and unashamed eru­di­tion in a man­ner that no other di­rec­tor could man­age (or would at­tempt).

Set in an elite Amer­i­can univer­sity, the picture con­cerns a group of fe­male stu­dents who set out to make the cam­pus a more cultured en­vi­ron­ment. They en­cour­age wash­ing. They run a sui­cide preven­tion clinic that dis­penses free dough­nuts.

Vi­o­let Wis­ter (Greta Gerwig), the un­of­fi­cial high priest­ess of the clan, is un­apolo­getic about her so­cial evan­gel­i­cal­ism. “Our as­pi­ra­tions are pretty ba­sic,” she says. “Take a guy who hasn’t re­alised his full po­ten­tial, or doesn’t have much, and then help him re­alise it or find more.”

Still­man has al­ways in­vited view­ers to iden­tify with char­ac­ters who, hopped up on self-im­por­tant ver­bosity, would fig­ure as an­tag­o­nists in films by more con­ven­tional di­rec­tors. Dam­sels in Dis­tress works harder than usual to sell us su­per­fi­cially un­lik­able he­roes. At times, it feels as if the di­rec­tor is try­ing to hu­man­ise the Heathers from Michael Lehmann’s epony­mous 1989 film. The Dam­sels’ quiet ar­ro­gance knows no bounds.

Some­how or other – ex­ploit­ing an un­ex­pect­edly touch­ing per­for­mance by Gerwig – he suc­ceeds quite bril­liantly. To in­dulge in a ref­er­ence from left of Still­man’s left field, the gang have all the adorable quixotic charm of a ju­ve­nile, distaff Dad’s Army. They have the best in­ten­tions, but are never fully aware of their own lim­i­ta­tions.

Even those who fail to warm to Vi­o­let should, how­ever, en­joy the ab­sur­dist hu­mour that en­livens ev­ery scene. One col­lege hunk is so hi­lar­i­ously stupid that he’s never no­ticed his own eye colour. “If my eyes are so ‘blue’ then, look­ing out, wouldn’t ev­ery­thing look blue?” he asks in­cred­u­lously.

Shot in brash shades, util­is­ing a stu­diously un­ex­cited cam­era, the film never for­gets that its first duty is to en­ter­tain.

Ac­cept no im­i­ta­tions. Still­man is still the best Still­man clone we have.

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