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Damsels in Distress

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating

By

Damsels in Distress
Sony Pictures Classics

As outdoor temperatures warm up we can expect the usual influx of fantasy films to hold dominion of our movie theaters. The Dark Knight Returns will take us back to Gotham City and Prometheus will lead us to the alien infested planet LV-426. Who'd'a thunk that a place called Seven Oaks College would be just as removed from the real world, and it would spring from the mind of Whit Stillman?

The none-too-prolific blue blood director (whose Godfather, if the good people of Wikipedia are to be believed, actually invented the term WASP) is back with his most enjoyable albeit silliest film to date. Damsels in Distress is impossible to take seriously, and may not actually have any deeper meaning at all, other than to remind us that watching women in colorful outfits play verbal badminton is a delight that should – no, must – be widely seen for the good of all mankind.

Sony Pictures Classics' normally sky blue opening card is bright pink here, the first indicator that Damsels in Distress will be wall to wall playfulness. Under a frequently heard '50s shoo-be-doo style chord progression we meet Violet, Heather and Rose who spy with their little eyes Lily, a new student on campus. They quickly swoop in to usher her into their world of poise, perfume and personal betterment.

Sony Pictures Classics
The leader is Violet, juicily played by Greta Gerwig, proving again that she is a massive, multi-faceted talent. She bears a striking physical resemblance to previous Stillman star Chloe Sevigny and may remind you a bit of a female version of Jason Schwartzman's character from Rushmore.

We learn that she comes from a humble background, which may explain her need to coach blockhead frat boys how to behave, but this is thankfully a storyline that isn't hammered home with too many tearful monologues. Oh, yes, there are tears, because all college students are but an eyelash from suicide (hence the girls' round-the-clock suicide prevention detail) but the “tailspins” on display are never all that threatening. When fate deals our hero a sour hand, we know she's just one newly-invented dance craze away from true bliss.

Damsels in Distress is among the most mannered films I've ever seen. It makes Stillman's absurd li'l socialite gabfest Metropolitan look like a Cassavettes film by comparison. The delivery is everything, and Gerwig just nails it. When she describes the creator of The Twist as “Chubbard Checker” it took me a few minutes before the ridiculousness hit me.

This is a movie where no one says “yeah” they say “yes” and they don't say “have to” they say “must.” What's most strange is that the other characters in the film – including Lily, our gateway into this world – don't bat an eye. In short, everyone is polite and precise and nuts, even the toga-clad frat boys and skirt-chasing “operators” who send over free drinks at the bar. There is evidence of sexuality (some of it a wee bit perverse, thanks to some Cathar beliefs) but this is a refreshingly chaste film. Everyone is far too noble in pursuit of higher goals to keep the lights on during lovemaking.

Damsels in Distress is a love it or hate it movie. Personally, I think the ones who aren't charmed to pieces by its endless banter and preposterous characters very much need our help to expand their tastes and accept a more enlightened purview of what, indeed, is refined and acceptable motion picture entertainment.

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  6. Damsels In Distress - A Review of Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress

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