Film Review: Damsels in Distress
After a thirteen year hiatus, quirky indie oddball Whit Stillman returns with a story about, well as far as the ‘plot’ goes: pretty much everything. A sophomore transfer student finds herself amongst her campus’ suicide prevention group, run by a trio of neurotic young women. Spearheaded by Violet’s (Greta Gerwig) predominant neuroses – tempered by the suggestion that she is on the autistic spectrum, but never confirmed – and surrounded by doltish fratboys, suicidal co-eds, amorous Cathars (no, really) and a young woman’s quest to kick-start an international dance craze (seriously). The film hits indie cinema critical mass within thirty minutes, and that’s before we get to the transcendental qualities in single serving hotel soap.
A recipe for farce? Certainly, but with such a myriad of wildly diverging antics the film itself even struggles to keep up with such a breakneck smattering of ideas. Stillman himself appears to be treading water in his return behind the camera; you can almost sense the words ‘action’ and ‘cut’ at the beginning and end of each shot. The cast at times feel overly mannered; Greta Gerwig in particular will raise some eyebrows at first. But as the film progresses her stilted delivery reveals itself as a deliberate idiosyncrasy, but it’s hardly an easy transition.
This is certainly a witty film in its writing, but wit alone can’t make up for narrative deficiencies. Tonally, Damsels is certainly not irreverent but is often guilty of being too sincere. In the writing, much of the wordplay becomes repetitive (there’s only so many times that gags about the misspelling of ‘back in a jif’ as ‘back in a gif’ can even be mildly amusing) and the use of stock phrases such as “playboy, chauvinist, operator” (courtesy of Megalyn Echikunwoke) defies the comedic rule of repetition (as witnessed in much of The Coen Bros oeuvre) and becomes rote.
The closest comparison with Damsels would be in the least impressive work of Woody Allen (A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy comes to mind), there is admittedly some charm and wittiness in the proceedings, but it’s ultimately dampened by an awkward helmsman who’s clearly struggling after such a long break, maybe even a little anxious. Damsels is only Stillman’s fourth picture but he really needs to get his skates on if he’s going to overcome his shortcomings, but that’s only after he learns to accomodate a story concerned with coherance rather than quirk. He’s no Terry Malick, yet.