For weird’s sake
Whit Stillman’s latest film is charming, yet perplexing.
The convoluted comic/satirical wit of Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress is a prime virtue but also something of a problem in this charming but perplexing entertainment.
The ironically titled Damsels might be characterized, at least in part, as a “campus comedy.” Most of its characters are enrolled at the fictional Seven Oaks College, a private East Coast institution with a vaguely Ivy League air about it. Central-most is a small clique of “popular girls” who follow the lead of a tall blonde named Violet (a vividly convincing Greta Gerwig) in their own peculiar brands of socializing and cultural activism. Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore) are two kinds of clueless co-ed snob, while newcomer Lily (a beguiling Analeigh Tipton) becomes a wary comrade in their cockamamie crusade.
The gospel of Violet includes the notion that she and her cohort should date only guys who are their inferiors in appearance, behavior and personal hygiene—with the declared aim of leading them to a more enlightened state. Violet’s erstwhile boyfriend, an amiably immature doofus named Frank (Ryan Metcalf) is exhibit No. 1. Other Seven Oaks males include a couple of clean-cut klutzes who are still learning to spell and identify colors, as well as Xavier (Hugo Becker), a French graduate student who prefers the sexual practices of the ancient Cathars, and the moderately mysterious Fred (Adam Brody) who takes on a second identity when he’s picking up women in bars.
There’s a complicated roundelay of shifting alliances among the couples and friends in all this, much of it mixing offbeat romantic comedy with something darker and not so funny. Violet and friends also operate the campus Suicide Prevention Center, where dorm-room interventions and prescriptions of doughnuts and dance therapy effectively hold sway. Violet’s desire to create a transformative “dance craze” leads the film to an amusing climactic sequence—something like a Fred Astaire routine re-imagined by Godard, Truffaut and the French New Wave.
It’s Stillman’s first film in over a decade, but the three that he made in the 1990s—Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998)—established him as an unusually gifted writer/director of wry, literate social comedies about young adults. While the new film continues in that smart, beguiling vein, it is also couched in a kind of nonchalant eccentricity that seems certain to puzzle most audiences.