Damsels in Distress – Review by Joseph Stampher
There are some movies that are great before a single frame has been shot; Damsels in Distress is one of those films. Here is a film with a script so literate and pithy it could have come off the shelf of Oscar Wilde or P.G. Wodehouse. The theater has a term for works such as this, the well made play. Here is an example of the well made film by the only man who has been able to make them since 1989, Whit Stillman.
Existing in a faux Ivy League school called Seven Oaks, Damsels follows the lives of four young women who run the campus’ suicide prevention center. At the helm of their operation is Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig) a girl who combats oppression with doughnuts and cures depression with tap dancing. Her closest companions Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) are girls so saturated in bourgeois life they go into “nasal shock” in the presence of the un-groomed lower classes. The latest addition to the group, Lily (Analeigh Tipton) is a transfer student who was hand-picked by the others after her arrival at Seven Oaks. Together these four young women serve as the heart of the story, and their adventures through love, loss and depression make up the bulk of the unconventional narrative.
All elements of the film are top notch, but Stillman’s script stands out above them all. His writing is vivid, witty and original. The dialogue flows out of the mouths of his actors as smoothly and roughly as often as laughter poured out of my own. His directing is equally inspired. In an age where fast cuts and close ups are needed to portray emotions actors are no longer trained to express, in this film the camera lingers on faces and bodies showing the character’s reactions to one another in all their uncut glory.
Doug Emmett’s cinematography, Brian Goodwin’s art direction, Elizabeth J. Jone’s production design, and Ciera Wells’ costume design is some of the best work of the decade. Each one builds off of and enhances the work of the other. I can’t remember the last time I saw a comedy film’s tone enhanced by the color of the costumes or decorations on the walls. The movie posters in the backgrounds were some of the only jokes I believe were not in Stillman’s script. It’s the rare film that looks beautiful, charming, quirky, and funny all at once.
Comedy has had a dearth of great actors recently. This film is populated by specimens of a dying breed, actors that can survive and thrive in a film made of master shots and long takes. The most frequently used shot is of all four girls walking around campus entirely within the frame. This is a film where actors can have entire conversations using only the word “hi” and insult each other for thinking Joseph Conrad was English with the same zest they mock each other for not knowing the names of colors.
It’s been 13 years since Stillman last gave us a picture, and I don’t have the heart to wait that long for his next film. I go into “nasal shock” at the scent of movies that think being literate means having Hemmingway act like a caricature of his writing style and Dali shout Rhinoceros as often as possible. I don’t laugh when movies suggest that the height of humor is an atmosphere in which one’s only worry is making it to Whitecastle. I do laugh at characters who think defending their arrogance makes them as admirable and humble as saints, especially when they’re well lighted and portrayed by intelligent actors. There’s far too much of the former and too little of the later.
This film is not for everyone. It’s a film for people who think treating suicide with smiles is absurd, enjoy the hypocrisy of pretentiousness, and laugh at jokes about the differences between Greek and Roman letters. Stillman has a style more in touch with Lubitsch than Apatow, and Gerwig is more reminiscent of Miriam Hopkins than Katherine Heigl. It’s a comedy of craft brimming with both. Some have called this film Stillman’s weakest, and I do agree with them. Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco are better films. None of that matters, it may be an auteur’s weakest work but it’s still a masterpiece.
Score: Standing Ovation