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It's clear that some reviewers "got" this film and some didn't. As
always, Stillman delivers with marvelous, laugh-out-loud funny
dialogue. This is so rare that that that virtue alone sets it apart
from the majority of the drivel that passes for conversation in movie
scripts these days. You can't tell me that there aren't some one-liners
in there that you hear and just *wish* you could have uttered yourself
if only you'd had the wit (Whit?).
The characters are all flawed, some lovably so, some not--just like life. You're not meant to like all of them, and it's part of the subtle, social observation of which Stillman is capable that the unlikable characters are not always immediately unlikable. Some characters learn from their mistakes and misperceptions, some do not. Again, like life.
The thing that is so winsome about Stillman's movies is that virtue always triumphs. There is a sweetness to his choice that the good always eclipses the bad. It's almost heart-achingly sweet, because we know that that is not how things usually work out, and yet you find yourself rooting for these flawed, quirky, sometimes idiotic characters to get out of their own way and allow their better natures to win the day. I've wondered for a long time about the central role of dancing in his movies, and maybe it's that when you're dancing, it's hard to do much else, and you become one with music, rhythm, and your dance partner(s). Perhaps that's what he wants for his characters--to use dance as a vehicle to get out of their own way and lead a happier, less complicated, less tortured existence.
My favorite of his movies will always be "Metropolitan," but this is an excellent new addition to his oeuvre. We've been waiting for "the new one" for a while, and now that it's here I find it a sheer delight.
Few films recently have been able to capture my imagination like this
one. With the glut of comic book films and remakes, very few people are
making original films. I was not expecting much going into this film (I
saw it at a festival). In fact I had not planned on seeing it, but it
seemed "different" enough to warrant a watch. Well, I went in not
knowing what to expect and came out with a big grin. I was happy I gave
it a shot and was surprised by the other comment on here.
If you want to see something original, that has some break out actors, and is funny, then check out "Damsels in Distress." Days after I left the screening, I kept thinking back on the funny lines and comically earnest characters. Go in with an open mind and come out with a grin.
IMDb does not allow 8.5 stars, but that's my verdict. This goes into the category of films I'll be watching again once it hits the theaters.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Whit Stillman is back. The writer-director of Metropolitan, Barcelona
and The Last Days of Disco was thought to have retired, his career
having not stirred since 1999. But no. Apparently he's just been
writing scripts that no-one would fund. Until this one.
Damsels in Distress is a college comedy about a group of girls all named after flowers who spot vulnerable new additions to the roster and try to help them, through their Suicide Prevention Centre ("They say with illness, prevention is nine-tenths the cure. With suicide, it's actually ten-tenths.") There's no counselling or medication, just free doughnuts, unlicensed aromatherapy and tap dancing. This being college, and this being Stillman, plenty of the story also regards romantic entanglements with frat boys, a "playboy-or-operator-type" and a Spanish religious zealot.
The film is brimming over with that unique, hilarious Stillman dialogue we've been missing for the last 13 years: cool people "lacking humanity", confusion over the spelling of the name "Zorro", and references to a time before anyone "started being nice to weird and unpopular kids". He's a wildly subversive writer, with a distinctive and fiercely individual viewpoint, seeing everything from a fresh angle. In Metropolitan his characters criticised "public transport snobs" who wouldn't take taxis, called socialist philosophers "patronising" and pontificated on the discreet, oft-overlooked charm of the bourgeoisie. In Barcelona, the virtues and vices of American imperialism were dissected in typically offbeat fashion. And in The Last Days of Disco, Stillman suggested the death of Bambi's mother was a formative incident for an entire generation that consequently embraced animal rights. It makes you think that Stillman would make one hell of an essayist. He's certainly one hell of a filmmaker. Here he offers an absurdist take on pushy parents and laments the degeneration of homosexual culture, from Wilde to macho posturing.
As always, he gives his characters absurd, unforgettable back stories. In the past we've had a supposedly gifted student fail a crucial exam because a girl kept snapping her bra strap, and the tragic tale of Polly Perkins, which shed light on the many wrongdoings of Metropolitan's heinous Rick von Sloneker. Here there are several, including those of queen bee Violet (Greta Gerwig), slickster Charlie and the blank-faced Thor, who's going to "hit the books really hard" in order to learn his colours. Stillman makes much in his films of affectations and the projected image and there are big lies again here, as Stillman returns to his favourite theme: the search for identity and a purpose in life. These are characters in flux: they change and solidify before our eyes. And then, quite often, they pair off.
It's hard to describe the plot. Really it's the antithesis of formula filmmaking: novelistic and unpredictable, with constant diversions and twists you can't anticipate, as in real life. And in a sense it is like real life, only with better dialogue and a taste for the fantastical. Stillman has always had a delightfully unselfconscious fondness for dancing. His films have had limbo competitions, "bible-dancing", a formal dance and an entire film based around disco, with a climax set to Love Train, in which people shimmy along a train carriage. In Damsels, all Gerwig wants to do in life is help people and start an international dance craze. Her unskilled jaunt down a dorm room corridor is a highlight, before the film passes into genuine musical territory, exploding into an all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza for its closing five minutes. Fittingly, the number Stillman chooses, Things Are Looking Up, is one of the loveliest from A Damsel in Distress - the 1937 Fred Astaire film. Leaping into musical territory is a filmic trick that can go very badly wrong, but it's done with such sincerity and such a genuine love for the genre that it's a move of complete inspiration.
The cast is largely excellent. Gerwig was a heroine of the "Mumblecore" genre before her break-out performance opposite Ben Stiller in Greenberg. Speaking in that curious way common to all the director's central characters and asked to essentially carry the film in an extremely tricky part, she's absolutely magnetic: juggling conflicting, contrasting character traits from one moment to the next, as her character variously finds and loses herself, helps and hinders others and may be either a life-saver or a joke. Analeigh Tipton plays Lily, who, as a new addition to the group, is forced to wrestle with their peculiarities, whilst negotiating a love life that sees her periodically deceived, confused and asked to have sex in an uncomfortable way. It's another busy part and she's fine in it. It took me a little while to acclimatise to the English Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), but she, erm, grew on me increasingly throughout the movie. The fourth member of the group, Heather (Carrie MacLemore), a principle-light dummy, seems a strangely conventional part, at least on first viewing, but MacLemore tackles it with gusto.
The performances from the men aren't as uniformly strong. Adam Brody is good as strategic developer Charlie, and Billy Magnussen makes an amusing idiot, but Ryan Metcalf as the blue-eyed, fairly unattractive, fairly unintelligent Frank is a touch inconsistent, and Hugo Becker isn't great as Lily's unconventional Latin lover. Perhaps the best of the bunch is Zach Woods in a cinematic first: the Chris Eigeman character not played by Chris Eigeman.
I like Whit Stillman more than any other modern filmmaker: for his glorious dialogue, challenging, surprising worldview and superbly-drawn characters. On a first viewing, Damsels is a worthy addition to the canon, with the slightly underwhelming digital visuals quickly forgotten thanks to an engrossing, meandering story, superb work from Gerwig and a script that has more great lines than anything I've seen so far this decade. But who watches Whit Stillman films just once? Barbarians, that's who. It's only repeat viewings that will reveal the precise depths of Damsels' myriad charms.
(Even longer review is on the blog.)
Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig), Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Heather
(Carrie MacLemore), and Lily (Analeigh Tipton) have many things in
common; they all talk with a smug tone and they attend the liberal arts
school Seven Oaks, which seems to exist in its own little world. To be
frank, it seems that Damsels in Distress has erected a world all its
own, where pop culture doesn't exist and neither do Televisions,
automobiles, or anything along the lines of utilities that we've become
accustomed to today.
I love films that exist in the screenwriter's head. One of the more recent examples is Wes Anderson's majestic and enthusiastic Moonrise Kingdom, a film that appeared to have its own mindset and, within in it, its own set of characters, laws, rules, and agenda that it wanted to accomplish. Damsels in Distress isn't quite as majestic and enthusiastic. It's rather monotone, uninteresting, and groggy for the most part. What a shame since this is director Whit Stillman's return to film after a thirteen year hiatus.
The storyline concerns those four girls as they go about their lives at this preppy Ivy League school. One of the first things they do, after recruiting Lily, is recreate the school's "suicide prevention center" where they will use aroma therapy, donuts, and coffee in order to reassure students about their place in the world. Why? In the meantime, the girls began to get entangled romantically with men, from the sophisticated Charles (Adam Brody) to the absolute hunk Xavier (also called, "Zavier," played by Hugo Becker). These relationships seem innocuous but prove to be possibly lethal to the girl's unbreakable bond together and this is what, sort of, gets the film on its feet.
Damsels in Distress seems like a satire lost at sea. It's satirizing, or attempting to, Ivy League life and the strange quirks it possesses. The problem is it never fully gets a grip and forms an agenda on what it wants to parody. We get shells of characters who feel robotic and cold, only capable of saying a funny line but incapable of brewing characterization. The satirical element isn't that witty and neither is much of the film. This is more down the line of surrealism than satire.
Stillman greatly reminds me of the quirk-expert I explored earlier this past summer and the man I just mentioned not too long ago; Wes Anderson. Stillman seems to be completely capable of setting up a beautiful long shot, focusing on characters, and intimately capturing life's wonderful eccentricities. But he struggles in the same field Anderson struggled in with his two features, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, respectively; he focuses so much on look and subtle beauty that he successfully undermines the storyline and the characters within it. Damsels in Distress concludes with a random song-and-dance number almost cementing the fact that there was no conceivable way to completely end this sort of story. It's choppy and inconsistent. But it all looks pretty.
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore, Hugo Becker, and Ryan Metcalf. Directed by: Whit Stillman.
Mean Girls' older sister that went to college, got an awesome biting, dry sense or humor; and got some wicked analytical skills to go along with it. This was just such an adorable and intelligent movie, both extolling the virtues of the undergrad experience while simultaneously panning it. At first, the movie may lose you with its irreverent randomness and quirkiness. Personally, I recommend at least one re-watch, to which it will become more clear and you'll be able to appreciate it more. This movie is one of those movies that has near unlimited replay value so that should be quite easy to do. Although nearly everyone was perfect in their roles, Greta Gerwig as Violet stands out. She's just pseudo deep in a sarcastic spirit that is tough to pull off while acting. The male characters are well done also but play in the background, which is actually kind of refreshing since many movies like this fall victim to sexism, or at least "boy craziness" of the presumably straight female characters. Overall, bravo, brava for this example of a deep, "slow-moving" comedy aimed at us young folk... not many like it these days.
Damsels in Distress felt to me like antidote, though I have been
puzzling over exactly what it's an antidote to, which is a particularly
charming trait of the movie.
Violet is the instigator in a group of delicate and vague young ladies attempting to fashion some sort of social nest for themselves via means of a campus suicide prevention centre promoting good vibes. The film is rather curiously out of time and place, like a very long dream.
At the danger of romanticising the past (Violet is keen to point out this pitfall of a fallacy), I've met people who went to university in the sixties and seventies, who had plenty of free time for epiphanies, large grants, and who had companies fighting over them when they graduated. Now universities massively oversupply a demand for thinkers, and they can be scary places to be, because you don't know where work is coming from when the music stops.
Seven Oaks is a campus away from this, a verdant and etherised place without a trace of gadgetry and social media, with comically lowly or merely fanciful levels of ambition and only a fleeting hint of financial constraint (Violet does acknowledge that drinks are expensive). So it's an antidote in that way.
But also I think it suggests that people may want to be more understanding of one another, and that there are natural differences in personalities and perspective, and many ways to live, with La Grande Illusion, a poster of which appears several times being somewhat of a touchstone in this regard (the joke being that the gentleman who owns it is probably the most self-righteous person in the whole movie). Violet is arrogant, but only in the most charming way. Often the most normal, and identifiable characters in the movie turn out to be the most arrogant, because they patronise others in earnest, whereas I think Violet is doing it quixotically, as some sort of elaborate and kindly coping strategy. I find quite often that the most arrogant people in life are fond of calling others arrogant, and the most snobbish are fond of calling others snobs. I think that Whit Stilman enjoys turning received ideas on their head, very much in the manner of Oscar Wilde, "We should treat all trivial things very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality".
One of the aspects I found funny and intriguing about the film was the spread of misinformation, for example Violet claims the wrong Strauss popularised the waltz, and also that an individual named Charleston invented the Charleston dance, in the middle of a tutorial, calmly and authoritatively. She goes further and claims that the attribution of the Charleston to the city is a common misconception, which it definitely is not! I think you can see from the number of "citation needed" tags on Wikipedia that there are a lot of people who enjoy making up information, the fiancé of a work colleague actually boasts about having deliberately put a lie on a Wikipedia page about a particular citrus fruit.
I adored the musical numbers that got put in at the end of the film (check out Tsai Ming-liang films if you're looking for more), and I think I found the whole movie delightful. I found a scene where the girls talked to one another in the dark prior to falling asleep particularly touching, it's a pleasure that I haven't experienced for over a decade.
Stillman's first feature in 13 years investigates the merciless social
rules within a campus: it's fun, as wittily and entertainingly
dialogued as his previous efforts, but way more off-beat and darkly
screwballish. It almost plays as an intellectual version of cult
favorite "Heathers" (it might be no coincidence if it also revolves
around a bunch of co-eds named after flowers), sparing us the
B-movieish third act of Michael Lehmann's film. Lots of fun, with a
musical twist around the end that might be able to improve the film's
chances to cult-ness.
I caught "Damsels in Distress" in Venice, where it was selected out of competition as the closing film for 2011's festival. Audience was quite appreciative, laughing out loud throughout the whole screening.
'DAMSELS IN DISTRESS': Three and a Half Stars (Out of Five)
Quirky teen comedy-drama about three college girls who run a Suicide Prevention Centre and offer words of wisdom and advice to troubled new college students while also trying to deal with their own issues. It was written and directed by Whit Stillman (who also helmed the eccentric comedies 'THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO', 'BARCELONA' and 'METROPOLITAN'). It stars Greta Gerwig, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Carrie MacLemore, Analeigh Tipton and Adam Brody. The movie is pretty aimless and slow paced but it's also always amusingly strange and whimsical.
The story is set at an East Coast college named Seven Oaks where Violet (Gerwig), Rose (Echikunwoke) and Heather (MacLemore) attend. The college has a mostly male dominated tone, despite becoming coed several years earlier, and the women feel forced in to having to deal with brutish and dimwitted guys all the time. They run a Suicide Prevention Centre and are also constantly trying to recruit freshman girls in to their clique to educate them on the ways of the campus (as well as the world). This year's recruit is Lilly (Tipton). Lilly runs in to man troubles right away and the others try to help her deal with them while also dealing with their own.
The movie has no real direction or strong character objective. It just kind of follows these young girls around as they struggle with adapting to life. It's slow and will bore the hell out of some viewers but others will be quite entranced by it (and others somewhere in between). I found the dialogue to be quite witty and funny and I loved all of the performances. I also really enjoy how quirky and in love with individuality the film seems to be. To me that's a great message to send young viewers (if they actually see the film, it might have missed it's target audience). The movie is a quiet little piece of cinema joy if you let it be.
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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a review of "Damsels in Distress" and "The Last Days of Disco",
two films by writer/director Whit Stillman.
Released in 2011, "Damsels" stars Greta Gerwig as Violet, the leader of a band of young women. As they have been deeply scarred in the past, the girls invent new personas for themselves and attempt to help other wounded people by embarking on various altruistic endeavours. One of their schemes involve "inventing a new form of dance", in which dance becomes akin to a political movement used to spread "togetherness, love and happiness".
Stillman's godfather, sociologist E Digby Baltzell, authored "Aristocracy and Caste in America" and helped popularise the term "Wasp". Stillman's films, meanwhile, tend to focus on the haute bourgeoisie, though he's more obsessed with questioning the naive assumptions they hold toward responsibility, culpability and leadership. In this regard, his films are preoccupied with characters whose well intentioned good deeds lead to disasters, or seemingly horrible characters who inadvertently help others. The intentions behind deeds are also examined: is altruism really altruism if it's unconsciously rooted in selfishness? Why do good deeds do damage? And why do the noblest of intentions oft lead to unforeseen disasters?
All these questions arise during one subplot in which the girls date boyfriends who are less cool and less intelligent than they are (their intention is to transform the boys into something better). In another subplot, the girls hand out soap to unhygienic male students. Both plans backfire spectacularly, with the soap turned into a weapon/game and the girls' relationships with the guys having less to do with reformation than their own personal insecurities and hangups. The film then ends with our heroes dancing to "Things are looking up", originally sung by Fred Astaire in the 1937 film "A Damsel In Distress".
Stillman was born into a very politically active, radically left-wing family. Many critics tout him as being one of the few "intellectual conservative directors", whilst others see his films as being reactionary responses to his parental upbringing. This is, after all, a guy whose films are often about "vindictiveness and self-centeredness unintentionally benefiting others" and "well-intentioned meddling causing damage", which is of course the credo of many far right groups. But Stillman really embodies a postmodern scepticism regarding both the political left and right. "When you're an egoist, none of the harm you do is intentional," characters in his earlier pictures state. And later: "Today barbarism is cloaked with self-righteousness and moral superiority." Elsewhere he has characters defending conservative values (marriage, monogamy etc) because, though they're simply rooted in "ritualistically enforced behaviour", such behaviour was itself "once deemed unconventional but has been adopted because it works for society". This argument is of course true, but also wrong in many instances. Stillman's films tend to present both sides of the coin.
These contradictions become most apparent in Stillman's "The Last Days of Disco". Set in the mid 1980s, "Disco" centres on a group of articulate urbanites. They're descendants of wealth, but have a hard time making ends meet. This at first seems like an apologia for the upper middle classes, until various mouthpieces in the film mock the "troubles" of our cast, even as Stillman sympathises with them.
The film then watches as the college graduates of the Me Generation set about co-opting disco trends and the totems of the sexual revolution. The "openness" of these social movements, however, quickly gets perverted into an arena of exclusivity, money, rules and regulations. The result is the creation of a false elite: those cool, attractive or pushy enough to get into the clubs and those willing to subject themselves to the club's arbitrary, superficial and capricious rules.
The film then contrasts two characters. One's Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), who's elegant, sophisticated, and always unintentionally harming others with her needle-like tongue. The other's Alice (Chloë Sevigny), a quietly sensitive woman who has no idea what the sexual revolution means for people like her. Acting free and sexy gets her stigmatised as a whore, whilst acting bookish and intellectual gets her stigmatised a prude. The disco dance floors epitomise this new sexual minefield, where there are no known steps, no clear partners, where attentions constantly shift, where no one touches for long, yet where there seemingly exists no boundaries.
"Control your own destiny. Don't wait for guys to call." Charlotte says, which is your typical Stillman "fact", in that its conservative counterpoint is then shown to be also true. Infinite choice has its own problems and self expression need not be free but a product of influence.
Interestingly, Alice embodies a modernist sensibility. She has standards, values and is constantly judging and categorising. Charlotte embodies a postmodern subjectivity, which, of course, is couched in a aura of "nonjudgementality", in which its deemed okay to insult and criticise because what's said is always just a "silly personal opinion" anyway. Charlotte's lines frequently highlight this contradiction: "People hate being criticised" she says, before complaining that Alice was "too moralistic and judgemental in college". Later Alice sleeps with a character called Tom, who promptly ditches her when Alice follows Charlote's advice to become a sexual predator. "I crave sentient individuals who don't abandon their principles," Tom says, disgusted with the cheapening of romance and relations, whilst, ironically, sticking to modern conventions of "openness" with these lacerating speeches (and it is he who gives her a STD!). "I'm beginning to think," Alice later says, "that maybe the old system of people getting married based on mutual respect and shared aspirations, and slowly, over time, earning each other's love and admiration, worked the best." For Stillman, mores, commitments, values and manners have everything to do with what distinguishes us as human, they're just very fickle, unreliable things.
8/10 - Worth one viewing.
I believe this movie successfully achieves it's goal of satirizing the
young college-age intellectual (or asinine, as the case may be)
mindset. The main characters ceaselessly spout all manner of opinions,
generally in the guise of bettering the world and others, but their
presentation is nothing short of self-congratulatory. Like many young
adults, they are convinced their thoughts and actions are worthwhile,
if not ground-breaking (international dance craze, anyone?).
This movie is definitely not for everyone. You have to be willing to be carried along by it, and I expect many people give up on it due to the absurdity of the characters. What this movies does have to offer is a palpable affection for the human condition and some really excellent performances, particularly by Greta Gerwig in her lead role as Violet.
If you like this movie, check out "Year of the Dog," which is similarly non-mainstream and somewhat edgier/better.
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