I wasn’t supposed to be seeing anything on Sunday, but the BFI tweeted that handful of last minute tickets had been released for the surprise screening, which I had never been to before, so I grabbed my debit card and bought the last available ticket (which, happily, was right in the middle of the cinema; one of the best seats in the house)
DAMSELS IN DISTRESS (Whit Stillman)
It has been 13 years since Whit Stillman released The Last Days of Disco; his third chronicle of Manhattan debutantes, and many wondered whether he would ever get around to making a film again, well, he’s back, and Damsels in Distress is both exactly what you’d expect and somewhat out of left field. It’s perhaps best described as Whit Stillman’s Mean Girls, and your reaction to that idea is probably a solid predictor of how you’ll like this divisive film.
I can see how this film will rub people the wrong way; it is theatrical, precious, sometimes pretentious (well, it’s about pretentious characters) and it is heavily constructed. And yet… I really, really liked it. Annaleigh Tipton plays Lily, a sophomore transfer to Seven Oaks college. On her first day she meets, and ends up moving in with Violet (Greta Gerwig), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), who run the suicide prevention centre on campus, and try to treat depressed students with a combination of donuts and dance crazes. The film follows the ups, downs, and notably the romances, of the school year.
Stillman’s dialogue is incredibly specific; intricate and obviously shaped down to the last punctuation mark. Like Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet, Stillman is a writer who delights in the way language is used and in the way he can shape it. As much as the characters are all larger than life, Stillman writes each with a different voice; the blindly idealistic Violet, dimwitted but goodhearted Heather and stuck up Rose are all defined quickly and clearly (Lily occupies a more reasonable, if slightly blander, middle ground, as the character we are to identify with). The film concentrates on Violet, and gives her the biggest and most involving character arc, but that’s not to say the others aren’t well written or played (in fact I could watch a whole film about Heather, or how Rose met her first ‘operator’). The male characters are a bit less defined, as they are largely the background to what the girls are going through, but that’s not to say they aren’t fun. Stillman particularly enjoys skewering lunkheaded fratboy culture with a running (and very funny) joke about Heather’s boyfriend Thor not knowing the colours.
You couldn’t call anything here naturalistic, but the performances do convince and draw you in. Greta Gerwig – who really can go either way for me – makes Violet sympathetic, and in the end quite adorable, despite the fact that I suspect spending any actual time with her would be quite irritating (I mean, her major ambition in life is to start a worldwide dance craze) but on screen rather than in life her idiosyncrasies – like her love of the smell of a particular bar of soap – are endearing and her very particular way of speaking – “people say that prevention is nine tenths of the cure, but in the case of suicide it’s ten tenths” is often very funny. The other performances are all similarly pitched, and similarly strong. Carrie MacLemore makes a strong debut as Heather, and Billy Magnussen is brilliantly stupid as Thor (his take on education is hilarious).
I get why people would hate a movie that actually goes to the trouble of having footnotes before its credits, but every time I think back on Damsels in Distress I like it more, as I remember another joke I laughed at, or another bizarre moment that made me smile.
5 / 5