September 16, 2011

THE BIJOU @ TIFF: Whit Stillman’s “Damsels In Distress”

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Whit Stillman has one of the most distinctive voices in American film, and his 13-year absence from the screen barely shows in his new comedy DAMSELS IN DISTRESS; it feels as though, had it been made immediately after The Last Days of Disco in 1998, nothing about it would be the slightest bit different. Of course, Stillman has always appealed to a rarefied audience, which is probably one of the reasons for the gap in his resume (Barcelona made $7M in 1994, and both Disco and his first film, 1990’s Metropolitan, grossed less than half of that), and Damsels is unlikely to change that.
Damsels, like Stillman’s other films, concerns a group of young people (Damsels is set in college, so its characters are slightly younger than his norm) who speak with epigrammatic wit and behave with utter eccentricity.  It centers on a group headed by Violet (Greta Gerwig), who with her two friends Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) dress as though they’re circa Three Coins In the Fountain and have fully committed to an agenda of assisting their fellow students.  They work to prevent suicides (the broken sign outside proclaims “Suicide Center”) by feeding the troubled students donuts and dance numbers, and even the group’s dating is charitable, as they endeavor only to be involved with hopelessly dim-witted frat boys.  (An indication of Stillman’s humor is the insistence that the school’s fraternities are “Roman,” not Greek, as their symbols are letters of the Roman alphabet.)
Into their orbit comes Lily (Analeigh Tipton, the babysitter from Crazy Stupid Love), a new transfer student who rooms with them, although she’s slightly more in touch with the real world than the others are.  She’s involved with someone who–how to put this?–has religious beliefs that impact upon his sexual practices, and meanwhile also becomes smitten with Charlie (Adam Brody), who’s as close to normal as anyone manages to be in the film.  (In the earlier films, he would have been the Chris Eigeman character.)  When Violet also finds herself attracted to Charlie, the (very slim) plot kicks in.
The pleasure of Stillman’s work, as ever, lies in his idiosyncratic dialogue, as stylized as verse, and he has a cast here that can carry it off:  Gerwig is radiantly insane as Violet (there’s a backstory suggesting the sources of some of her fixations), and the other girls handle Stillman’s tricky rhythms and serene illogic as well.  Brody and Aubrey Plaza, both known for very different kinds of comedy, are quite effective in smaller roles, and for the initiates, there are even appearances by some of the stars of Stillman’s prior films, Taylor Nichols and Carolyn Farina. 
There may never have been an American filmmaker more devoted to drollness as an end in itself than Whit Stillman, and while Damsels In Distress has fondness for its characters, it’s got even less emotional grounding than his other work–it nips at overt surrealism in a couple of dance sequences, and in fact, may have benefited from becoming an all-out musical.  As a director, he’s never been particularly interested in exploring any kind of original visual style in a way that might match his approach to dialogue, and Damsels is no exception to that, the film’s technical credits are serviceable.

Whit Stillman’s films remain models of tonal consistency, with the same virtues and shortcomings firmly in place.  For some, Damsels In Distress will be as garlic to vampires, but for those who appreciate his warm-hearted archness, the film is a gently bracing stroll through the kind of erudition most filmmakers couldn’t even begin to emulate.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."