Depending on your perspective and particular sense of humor, Whit Stillman’s brilliant and dryly funny new film may inspire uproarious laughter, gentle sniggers, bemused smirks, yawns of apathy, or, well, all of the above. For this filmgoer, the responses included everything but apathy, and an awakening sense of rediscovery of one of America’s brightest and least productive directors, this being only Stillman’s fourth feature since he debuted with Metropolitan in 1990. We need much more of this kind of smart, subtle artistry in American film.
On the surface, Damsels in Distress may resemble an entry in the college romp-com genre, taking aim at the social, sexual, and developmental follies of a group of students — primarily the “damsels” in a specific posse of friends led by the alpha gal Violet (Greta Gerwig, whose performance is a wonder of nuance and comic flair). But superficial links to the college-humor trough and the post-Apatow world are where this quirky and deft delight departs to cling to its own corner of the cinematic world.
Atmospherically, this slice of college life is carefully kept free of historical or regional references, seeming as if it could be taking place any time from the mid 1950s to the early 2010s. These “damsels” may be in distress, at times, but they’re also damsels in control. Transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) arrives to gently challenge the sovereignty of Violet, shifting the socio-emotional order a bit, while the others oversee a suicide prevention center on campus, advocating tap dancing and good hygiene as agents for warding off evil and self-destructive thoughts.
Stillman’s sharp and incisive, but often drolly ingenious, script is woven into an overall filmic vision that includes unexpected formality in spite of the wacky twists. The Vaseline-on-the-lens soft sheen of its look and deceptively stylish flow pays homage to Douglas Sirk’s artful ’50s melodramas, while at times we feel and fear that the undertones of dark forces could lead to Todd Solondz-esque perversity. But it doesn’t. A marvel of delicate balance, Damsels keeps its decorum in the face of numbskull frat boys and lowbrow rules of the Hollywood comedy game.