It takes a while to get into the swing of Damsels in Distress, and I can’t blame anyone who never does get into the swing. Whit Stillman, who hadn’t made a film in 14 years, returns to his milieu, the urban upper-crust, this time at a tony English private college. But while his earlier films had a hint of anthropology, Damsels in Distress is completely divorced from reality. This film has a distinctive style that is alternately off-putting and charming. These characters exist nowhere except in the imagination. If this film isn’t entirely successful, it is certainly original.
Set at the fictional Seven Oaks College, our heroines are a group of girls that travel in a pack. Their leader is Violet (Greta Gerwig), who’s greatest dream is to be remembered as the creator of an international dance craze. Her sidekicks are Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), who has a habit of calling boys “playboy operators,” and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), who is given little personality. They include into their group a transfer student, Lily–get it, all flower names? played by Analeigh Tipton, who, while becoming their friends, calls them out on their arrogance and conceit.
The girls run the suicide prevention center. Violet is genuinely interested in helping people, but has an odd therapy–she has the suicidal and severely depressed tap dance. The tables get turned when Violet sees her boyfriend kissing another girl–she then becomes depressed, but is not allowed to join the dance show because she is not clinically depressed.
Lily divides her attention between a French grad student, who follows a religion that does not allow him to have procreative sex, so we get the most obscure references to anal sex you’re likely to hear, and a student (Adam Brody), who has created a fictional identity for himself. Violet finds this intriguing, and becomes attracted to him. It turns out that Violet has her own secret past, even changing her name, which was Emily Tweeter (with no mention of Twitter).
It’s hard to know what Stillman is attempting to accomplish here. There is some humor, extremely dry humor, Death Valley dry humor. There are many aphorisms, which gives it an Oscar Wilde quality, especially in regard to the damsels attitudes toward the opposite sex. Violet prefers boys who belong to the Roman frat (they have Roman letters, not Greek), because they are morons and not that attractive, which she finds likeable. One of the phrases I can remember is “The cool don’t have to be entirely inhumane; just enough to be cool.” Or when Brody tells the French grad student, “I can’t get behind any religion that worships on a Tuesday.”
The film is supposedly set in the modern day, but there are no cell phones, laptops, or mention of Facebook. The acting is all deadpan–of the principle damsels, no emotion crosses their faces, and their statements seem as if written by out beforehand–there are no “ums,” “likes,” or “whatevers,” that would mark the language of any typical college student.
Stillman is kind of an odd duck in the film pantheon, perhaps this is his ideal. I will congratulate him on including black faces, something heretofore not seen in his films. I kind of liked Damsels in Distress, but it’s extreme archness makes it a tough sell.
My grade for Damsels in Distress: C+.