Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Damsels in Distress

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS (Whit Stillman, 2011)

To refer to a film’s olfactory properties is ordinarily associated with expressing one’s displeasure, but to do so in regard to DAMSELS IN DISTRESS is to praise this cinematic aromatherapy’s mood-lifting qualities.  Its light, sweet notes provide a soothing atmosphere for writer-director Whit Stillman’s return after a thirteen-year absence.

DAMSELS’ soap-sniffing protagonist Violet (Greta Gerwig) would certainly approve of scent-related praise.  Violet and her friends Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) are, depending who one asks, Seven Oaks University’s selfless suicide prevention center volunteers or the campus do-gooders.  These dutiful young women are vigilant in offering assistance in the form of coffee, donuts, and tap dancing to those in need, be they clinically depressed or merely malodorous.

At the beginning of a new academic year the trio pulls sophomore transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) into their fold.  Violet, Rose, and Heather invite her to become their roommate and to join in their charitable work.  Lily is pleased to gain such nice and altruistic friends so quickly, although it soon becomes apparent that they require help as much as anyone.

British-accented Rose is quick to loose sharp, stinging assessments of the untoward motivations she assigns to the school’s male population.  Dimwitted Heather is hopelessly naïve.  Then there’s Violet, whose exceptional verbal dexterity and magnanimity mask a deep pathology.  She touts the virtues of dating losers, a renewable resource at Seven Oaks, and envisions her greatest possible achievement as creating an international dance craze.  Violet can be quite convincing in her convictions--never let it be said that she does not practice what she preaches--but cracks appear in her carefully maintained surface upon discovering doofus Roman-letter fraternity boyfriend Frank (Ryan Metcalf) cheating on her.

Stillman densely packs DAMSELS IN DISTRESS with trademark witticisms that dissect social constructs and challenge conventional wisdom.  Who else but the filmmaker who strived to rehabilitate the image of disco would have Violet vigorously defend topics as wide-ranging as the received wisdom in clichés and the civil, if not fundamental, gesture that is a stranger sending drinks to a table, let alone make the cases so eloquently?  Stillman likes to play with language and savor the art of conversation, yet he never leaves the impression that his zingers are merely tricks of forensics.  For his characters choosing the proper words can be as much of a moral act as the customs discussed.  Stillman’s polite, heady humor is given to wry smiles and low chuckles than explosive laughter, but the modesty of the jokes makes them no less funny than those more insistent in eliciting the desired reaction.

While the dialogue easily identifies DAMSELS IN DISTRESS as Stillman’s work, the broad humor and vaguely surreal tone mark it as something of a departure.  Undergrads often try on different personas because they’ve been afforded the freedom and because they’re searching to find what suits them.  Whether Stillman is likewise dabbling for the sake of dabbling or seeking to expand his repertoire, his inimitably refined take on the boisterous college comedy pays off not only with highbrow repartee but also with sight gags and lowbrow quips.  His facility with cultivated humor is to be expected.  That mentions of Catharism and lexical tiptoeing also manifest in what is probably the crudest joke in his oeuvre is not.

Gerwig delights to no end playing a character who is able to incorporate her peculiarities into a framework of propriety, service, piety, and delusion that is strangely functional for Violet and her circle.  She handles the dialogue with aplomb, rattling off Violet’s belief system as if reciting from a catechism in a conversational voice while bending the ideology as inconsistencies with her behavior are pointed out.  Gerwig’s guileless performance endears even as it reveals the disorder behind her naked sincerity.

Late in DAMSELS IN DISTRESS Violet says, “I adore optimism when it’s completely absurd, perhaps especially then.”  For all of the confused and stupid people inhabiting his film--everyone, in other words--the generosity of spirit Stillman displays for them is paramount.  Flawed though they are, their enthusiasm and resilience in the face of setbacks reflect their inherent decency and worthiness.  To be happy or optimistic is a choice, maybe one in opposition to the evidence.  DAMSELS IN DISTRESS sets its targets on lightness and hope and transfers those attributes to those receptive to the message.  Life may not be an extended dance scene from a 1930s Hollywood musical, but wouldn’t it be wonderful to find a partner, kick up one’s heels, and treat it as though it were?

Grade: A

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