Tuesday Editor’s Pick: Damsels in Distress (2011)

by on March 27, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing Tue April 3 at 8:30 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]
*Sneak Preview with director Whit Stillman
**Stillman intros the film again on Thurs April 5 at 7:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]
 
Hark the glorious return of Whit Stillman! We here at Alt Screen have been closely monitoring the genesis and production of the director’s first feature in 13 years since his “Doomed Bourgeois in Love” trilogy, and couldn’t be more excited. Stillman is busy all week, appearing alongside his go-to actor Chris Eigerman with Barcelona at Museum of the Moving Image on Wednesday, before the two will appear in conversation with Lena Dunham after The Last Days of Disco, Thursday at BAM.
 

Chip Brown has an in-depth profile of Stillman for the New York Times Magazine that couldn’t be a better place to start.
 

Meanwhile, many critics have assured fans that they are in for a treat:

In Contention: “One of American independent cinema’s most singular comic voices has lost none of its eloquence or eccentricity in its overlong silence.”
 
The Playlist: “Longtime fans will be glad to know that Stillman is back — and it’s like he was never gone.”
 
The Wall Street Journal: “If you’ve been wondering whatever happened to Whit Stillman, the answer is, quite simply, that he got better.”

 

 
Guy Lodge for In Contention:

It gives me no small amount of pleasure to report that Stillman’s latest is an unequivocal delight — a warmly off-kilter and wholly unique campus comedy that has not only redeemed an otherwise sluggish final few days on the Lido, but has provided the purest shot of joy in the entire [Venice Film] festival.
 
That’s not to say Stillman has gone cuddly in the lengthy hiatus that followed 1998′s “The Last Days of Disco”: the director’s many patient fans will find his skewed wit and dryly affectionate mockery of the East Coast upper classes pleasingly intact, even if the film surrounding these virtues is perhaps a shade broader and more heightened than his three previous features. Newcomers to his work might take a few scenes to adjust to his exactingly verbal, language-besotted humor, which can turn on a single line from sweetly daffy to cuttingly perceptive — if “black whimsy” is a genre, he’s still one of its foremost practitioners — but should be lured in by the frisky pace of the piece, not to mention its luxuriance of finely whittled one-liners. (My note-taking during the screening swiftly devolved into shaky-handed transcription of every second line of dialogue, none of them now legible owing to my convulsions of laughter.)

 
Lodge also compares the disparate reactions to the film at London and Venice, for HitFlix.
 

 
Karina Longworth for The Village Voice:

Shaping up as another love-it hate-it divider is Stillman’s Damsels in Distress. Wildly, Damsels is built around a tour de force performance from Greta Gerwig, whose facility with Stillman’s distinct, nearly affectless patter is as impressive as her song-and-dance stylings are comically charming. As is usual for a Stillman effort, Damsels is a film-length referendum on dating mores and philosophies of social correctness couched in an episodic romantic roundelay in which the swapping of suitors is a path to moral determinacy. Unusual for a Stillman film, the movie’s subjectivity swaps, too, about halfway through, from one damsel to another. Doug Emmett’s sun-dappled cinematography offers a distinct visual style to match the fractured fairy tale elements of the story, which build steadily towards a Busby Berkeley-esque, musical medley, narrative-swallowing finale. Oh–and there are running jokes about anal sex, delivered with Stillman’s patented WASP prudery. It may be my favorite film in Toronto thus far.

 

Kevin Jagernauth for The Playlist:

From the moment the Sony Pictures Classics logo pops up not in the usual blue — but in cupcake frosting pink — you know that Whit Stillman’s first film in 13 years (!) is going to be something special. Let there be no doubt: Stillman is just as enjoyable as when we last met him those many years ago and “Damsels In Distress” finds the director with lots (and lots and lots) left to say.
 
In case you haven’t guessed, Stillman bravely goes out on a high wire for this film and presents a world that is completely and wholly his own. And judging by the small, but continual walkouts during the film, you will either embrace it or you won’t. Admittedly for this writer, it took a good 10 to 15 minutes to settle into Stillman’s cotton candy-meets-university syllabus style, but once in there, it’s mostly a pure joy. Dialogue has always been Stillman’s strong suit and he delivers quips, one liners, high brow jokes and (less successfully) low brow guffaws in spades. It’s a whipsmart and arch screenplay and for viewers willing to play along, it’s a pleasure unraveling the wordplay the actors clearly enjoy delivering (and do so with ease, which we can only imagine was due to extensive rehearsals).

 

 

Chip Brown in the New York Times Magazine profile:

Stillman is the knight-errant of sneered-at bourgeois values. He extols the overlooked merits of convention and the hidden virtues of the status quo. Inveighing against “cool people” and the social cachet of “uniqueness, eccentricity, independence,” the transfer student Lily asks: “Does the world really want or need more of such traits? Aren’t such people usually terrible pains in the neck? What the world needs to work properly is a large mass of normal people — I’d like to be one those.” Even the frat-house dolts who provide a counterweight of broad comedy — the character Thor can’t identify colors because he skipped kindergarten — aren’t belittled for their simple-minded aspirations. What Stillman captures best are people who aren’t quite adults but are no longer children: bewildered fledglings of beleaguered traditions who have a mostly abstract grasp of suffering, an often-preposterous belief in their own moral integrity and an optimistic faith that their destiny is part of a divine plan — ideally one of God’s.
 
Stillman had been making notes on “Damsels” for years before he mentioned the idea, in 2006, to Liz Glotzer and Martin Shafer at Castle Rock Entertainment, which had financed his last two movies. “Whit said, ‘I want to write a movie about four girls in a dorm who are trying to keep things civil in an uncivil world,’ ” Shafer said. “It took him a year to write 23 pages. Six months later, a few more dribbled in. He just doesn’t work very fast. Finally we had a draft. When we started production he said, ‘I think 12 years is the right amount of time between movies.’ ”
 
“There’s a lot of Whit in the character Violet,” said his old college roommate Russell Pennoyer after one screening. The part seemed deeper on film than it had in the script. In the editing room, Stillman and Hafitz shifted the focus onto what Gerwig’s character didn’t know and couldn’t say, heightening Violet’s silences with reaction shots so that all her postulates and opinions seemed only to reinforce what was broken and ineffable in her life.

 

 
A director’s statement from the press kit:

There’s a saying that the way to end up in the future one wants is to invent it oneself.
 
It’s hard not to admire the idealists who, not content with the existent world, seek to invent new ones. But the confidence and mastery these future-architects embody often disguise a fragile persona that’s frail, inadaptive and, finally, easily shattered.
 
In the film the word “tailspin” plays a key role. In aviation, the term evokes the image of a plane in steep dive, nose-first, spiraling [sic] downward. The second, informal usage is “a loss of emotional control sometimes resulting in emotional collapse.”
 
Just as pilots use steep dives to build speed and regain control, pulling out just before they hit ground, our heroine finds downward velocity reforming her life — but in steep descent one cannot be sure a fatal crash will be avoided.

 
An interview with Collider:

 
 
Another video interview with Stillman at The Guardian.

 

Mark Olsen for Film Comment:

As for the film I had the most purely enjoyable experience with [at TIFF], it’s a toss up between Twixt and Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress. Damsels exists in some odd not-quite-this-world realm-appropriate enough since one of its plot engines is Greta Gerwig as a college coed desperate to start a new dance craze-which might best be described as ironic earnestness: everything happens with total sincerity but at a slight knowing remove. Gerwig in particular slips into this style with remarkable ease and assuredness. Stillman deftly teases the viewer as to just whose story is being told, playing a narrative shell game before revealing the answer. Some will argue that the film is slight, and there will almost certainly be a brigade chanting “we waited years and years for this?” from those wanting another Stillman tale of urbane blue bloods, but both would miss the director’s relaxed, casual certainty of the tone. The film’s humane perceptiveness is so slyly understated as to render itself all but invisible beneath its bright, playful surfaces. In other words, Damsels was kind of what I expected, but with enough surprises to render it seemingly fresh and renewed.

 

Ty Burr had an interesting experience, for the Boston Globe:

The first film in 13 years from Whit Stillman and — by a long shot — his weirdest. From the deliciously dry social portraiture of 1990’s ” Metropolitan” and 1994’s “Barcelona” to the studiously wacky genre-hopping madness of his latest is a giant leap, and on the surface not one for the better. Yet every time I gave up on “Damsels” — which was pretty much every five minutes — it won me back, and the net effect felt unsettlingly pleasant, like taking a shower in seltzer water.
 
How odd is this movie? It pokes fun at college suicide yet is utterly serious in matters of the heart. It takes place in a chaste never-never-land while making jokes about anal sex ( religiously sanctioned anal sex, but still). It has musical numbers and line dancing. It has multiple-personality disorder. It has multiple genre disorder, much like Francois Ozon’s 2002 ” 8 Women.” In fact, I think “Damsels in Distress” would probably go down better with American audiences if it came in French with English subtitles, but Stillman (who’s back after a decade of living in France and whose sensibilities are tipped off by that ” Lola Montes” poster on Gerwig’s wall) doesn’t want to let us off that easily. You have to fight your way into this movie, and a lot of people won’t think it’s worth the trouble. But it is.

 

 
Noel Murray is similarly baffled, but impressed, for The Onion AV Club:

Even though I’m not sure I understand what Stillman was going for minute-to-minute, I was swept away by how original Damsels is, and how funny. It’s essentially an‘80s-style campus comedy (complete with cheesy faux-rock soundtrack), in which dopey fraternity boys and prissy girls clash with artsy types, activists and ruffians. The difference is that Stillman appears to be at least superficially on the side of the snobs. He paints the frat boys—who in this movie’s world are “Roman,” not Greek—as dim and helpless, in an overtly broad comic touch that doesn’t always work. And he paints their ladyfriends—led by Greta Gerwig—as staunch idealists, who helm a suicide prevention organization and try to lead their peers by setting good examples. Dig beneath the fast-paced chatter, bright colors and absurdist turns (there’s more than one dance number in the film) and you’ll find that this is still a movie about the way young people try to define themselves, and how they hide their petty hypocrisies behind convoluted modifications to their public identities. But this time, the method matches the meaning, as Stillman creates a thick-lined, screwball universe. This is less Jane Austen, more Little Lulu.

 
Beth Hanna recounts Stillman’s Q&A comments on the film’s period play, for Indiewire:

“A lot of people are confused about the period [of “Damsels”], and as well they might be. Because it’s essentially these characters, more or less in a contemporary setting, trying to recreate the past and trying to live in the past. And so it should be confusing. All of my films have kind of cheated on period because it becomes kind of a prison. Once there’s this sort of hermetically sealed period, done with art directors and tons of money, somehow it limits things and makes things false. Because we actually don’t live in period, we live in now.”
 
Stillman said that before production he only knew Gerwig “from a photograph” but that “the inspiration for the fashion and the style was supposed to be Grace Kelly. Greta can have a Grace Kelly air about her, and then Analeigh actually plays a real person in the film. It’s sort of like ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo,’ where they drop Mia Farrow into this fantasy world.”

 

 

Gabe Klinger for Sight & Sound:

As in the director’s previous films, Damsels wears superficiality on its sleeve but ultimately manages to express something more deeply felt about its characters in the calibrated space that it leaves between scenes. It’s refreshing to see a movie dealing with young people that rewards the audience by not bombarding them with every detail they need to know about the characters (per Mean Girls (2004) and its ilk) right at the outset. Stillman also seems to be playing consciously with the disconcertment of an audience who will have to scratch their heads wondering whether they’re watching rote teen fair or a serious arthouse experiment (it stays tethered somewhere in between).
 
I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the film. It includes musical interludes, inept suicide attempts and a brainless jock named Thor who purports to learn how to identify colours (yes, colours) as part of his well-rounded college education. College as a frightening prelude to the wilderness of post-graduate life is a somewhat worn-out concept in American comedy, but it’s one that Stillman seems to be working up from scratch instead of relying on existing models. Whether or not it works in the way that audiences will want it to work still remains to be seen.

 

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