Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman's first film in thirteen years, 2011's DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, strangely plays both like a Whit Stillman film and someone's idea of one. An homage to? Yes. A parody of? At times.  A long creative layoff can be a dangerous thing. The artist behind METROPOLITAN, BARCELONA, and THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO has indeed fashioned another film that could not have been made by anyone else, especially in this post-postmodern era. Does DAMSELS earn a place among those earlier classics?

Yes and no. Within seconds of the opening, there was little mistaking where I was, back in that wonderful landscape of articulate, sophisticated, and self-aware dialogue that is unmistakably Stillman. The story is set in the present, more or less, and the attitude is an odd mix of New Republic, New Yorker, and National Review, with perhaps some Voltaire and Wodehouse-like observations interwoven.

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS's title refers to a small group of attractive female undergraduates at a vaguely Ivy League campus called Seven Oaks, somewhere in the Northeastern United States.  Violet (Greta Gerwig) leads the young ladies with an organizer's upbeat spirit leavened with blithely biting commentary. Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) speaks with a British accent, suggesting West Indies heritage perhaps, but insists she's from London.   Heather (Carrie Maclemore) is a very svelte, flirtatous coed whose voice is maybe a half octave off Valley Girl. Into their circle comes Lily (Analeigh Titon), waify and introverted who is quickly adopted by the girls as they fear for her survival on campus. Of course, they only have the best of intentions.

Violet et al. volunteer at a campus suicide prevention center. They offer donuts and consolation to students who've lost their will. The damsels' efforts at treatment are dubious.  In lieu of proper counseling, for example, dance therapy is offered.  This may have something to do with Violet's life goal of creating a new dance craze.

Instead of Greek, Seven Oaks features a Roman fraternity system populated with oafish boys who of course, enjoy getting drunk and throwing up, but also seem to have deficiencies of the most basic of intuitive skills. One running gag includes a frat boy who cannot distinguish colors.  Not for medical reasons, but because his parents, in their rush to groom an upwardly mobile scholar, had him skip kindergarten. Each of the Du fraternity are presented as hilariously inarticulate dolts, allowing the director to stage some of the broadest humor yet seen in his films. I never expected a Stillman movie to evoke memories of ANIMAL HOUSE.

Violet likes the Du boys. She finds them endearing. Sad, of course, but worthy of her time as she seeks to "help" them. She even dates one. Her words very thinly veil a superiority, a snobbishness inherent to a would-be debutante. Part of the satire in DAMSELS is that she and the other lead characters are not really Ivy League material, intellectually or in pedigree.  Violet is a swift pretender, a self-deluded lass with perfect grammar who seeks to be the heir to say, Emma Woodhouse in a Jane Austen novel, but fails significantly in her matchmaking.  A round robin of boyfriends will trade partners with each of the Damsels, almost like that in a Woody Allen film. There are also musical numbers.

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS is an enjoyable trifle. It has the expected Stillman charms: the dialogue, the fashions, the conservative wit. The subject of the film is so ripe for ribbing and Stillman provides many choice pokes at this culture. This is especially true of the over educated whose analysis of every last iota of their lives perhaps prevents their fulfillment. I guess one could prod for a deeper analysis, but one could also enjoy this movie as if it were simply a lost 1930s' treasure ala THAT'S MY BOY or a Marx Brothers.  DAMSELS could fairly easily could be mistaken for one. Minus the color photography of course.

But unlike the earlier films, DAMSELS also plays like Stillman-lite, if that isn't redundant. METROPOLITAN's gentle but potent social satire deservedly put the director on the map, while the later films eruditely examined relational dynamics amidst anti-American sentiment and even the disco era. Each of those films were awash in Stillman's "been there" point of view and piquant prose. Here, the character of Violet is emblematic of past work. Greta Gerwig's performance perfectly captures the essence of a Stillman heroine. And like that of Violet, his films have a "velvet brick" quality: sharp, keenly observant jabs wrapped in the most elegant of packages.

But DAMSELS doesn't achieve the lofty sophistication of the earlier films. As refreshingly different and (sometimes) smart as it is, most often it feels like a film student's thesis on the director. Or a wannabe indie up and comer trying to ape an inimitable style.

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