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.