Stillman’s comeback odd, ingenious — and irritating
In writer- director Whit Stillman’s much-anticipated return to filmmaking, “Damsels in Distress,” the lead damsel, Violet Wister (played by Greta Gerwig, the former “It girl” of the mumblecore movement), attends a literature class in which the professor is discussing an early 20th- century British novelist named Ronald Firbank.
I was unfamiliar with Firbank, so I availed myself of a technique too vulgar for the world of “Damsels,” where the attractive and mostly articulate students who inhabit the campus of “Seven Oaks College” apparently have no interest in texting, Twitter, laptops or even cellphones. I Googled him.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica, I discovered, had this to say of Firbank: “His is a peculiarly fantastic and perverse, idiosyncratic humour. His wit largely Please see
depends upon the shape and cadence of the sentence and upon an eccentric and personal vocabulary.”
Perhaps Stillman is a fan of encyclopedia entries, for this is a perfect summation of the sense of humor to be found in the ingenious and irritating, pleasurably fresh and painfully self- conscious “Damsels in Distress,” a movie with characters as highly mannered and stylized as those in a David Lynch film, though to much different effect.
“Damsels in Distress” marks the end of a 13-year hiatus from filmmaking for Stillman, who is admired by many and scorned by a few for his three previous comedies of the elitist urban upper class, “Metropolitan” (1990), “Barcelona” (1994) and “The Last Days of Disco” (1998), now considered modern classics.
True to the homonym of his first name, Stillman is as witty as ever. But “Damsels” may distress fans who anticipate another more or less believable portrait of life and love among the well- educated, well-spoken, well- dressed and well- off. As the Firbank reference indicates, the movie is intentionally unreal, with arch, absurdist dialogue that might work better on the printed page, inside a reader’s head (think Woody Allen’s “Without Feathers”).
The film focuses on a tight-knit group of four rather formal girls, all named for flowers. The
★★★✩✩ ❚ leader is the apparently unflappable but inwardly dismayed Violet Wister. Heather (Carrie Maclemore) is sweet and pretty but rather dull. Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), the ethnic member of the group, speaks with an English accent, and accuses all men of being “confidence tricksters” and “playboy operators.” The newcomer and Violet’s rival for screen time is model-skinny transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton), who eventually accepts much of Violet’s eccentric philosophy, including the idea that fraternity members are more to be pitied than mocked. “They can’t be elitist,” Lily agrees. “They’re morons.”
Much of the film’s most effective humor involves the dimwitted brothers of the DU house. (A recurring gag is that Seven Oaks doesn’t have “Greeks”; it’s fraternities use letters from the “Roman” alphabet.) Thor (Billy Magnussen) is offended that people consider him dumb because he never learned his colors; Frank (Ryan Metcalf), meanwhile, is surprised to learn his eyes are blue. “I’m not gonna go around checking what color my eyes are!” he asserts, as if he had been accused of some suspiciously metrosexual grooming habit .
The movie is constructed, more or less, as a series of interconnected vignettes, some of which work wonderfully, some of which flop. DU brothers aside, the characters typically speak with a flat, sometimes awkward affect, and are unafraid of polysyllables. Pleased with the complimentary soap she collected after a night at a Motel 4 (cheaper than a Motel 6), Violet praises “the salutary effect of scent on the human psyche.” She also asserts that “dance crazes enhance and elevate the human experience.” Unfortuntely, this leads to an awful final scene, in which the cast demonstrates Violet’s innovation, the “Sambola!”
Does Stillman want us to squirm rather than dance? “I love clichés and hackneyed expressions of all kinds,” says Violet; does this “love” explain why Stillman adds the most tired of all movie comedy sound effects, the yowl of a startled cat, to a shot of a frat boy falling over a porch railing? “Damsels” is like no other movie I’ve seen in some time; but even after two viewings, I’m not sure if that assessment is an endorsement.
“Damsels in Distress” is at the Ridgeway Four.
— John Beifuss: 529-2394 Damsels in Distress (PG-13, 99 min.) See review on Page 13. The Kid With a Bike (PG-13, 87 min.) A 12-year-old boy is abandoned by his father in the latest film from Belgium’s Jean-pierre and Luc Dardenne, two-time winners of the Palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival. What to Expect When You’re Expecting (PG-13, 110 min.) The nonfiction best-seller inspires an all-star ensemble comedy.