Damsels in Distress (2012)

Poster for Damsels in Distress

Whit Stillman has quite a reputation amongst cinephiles, but this is the first film of his I’ve seen. It’s definitely an odd duck, which makes it harder to write about than the genre films I typically watch. It’s a comedy about four young women — all named after flowers — at the fictional Seven Oaks College. Three of them greet the fourth as she arrives on campus and recruit her into their group. They run a suicide prevention effort that seeks to alleviate emotional trauma through tap dance and aromatherapy. But the leader of the group, Violet, seems to have some mental problems of her own. (“I don’t like the word ‘depression’,” says Violet. “I prefer to say that I’m in a tailspin.”)

At times this reminded me of The Fairy, in the way that it’s very mannered, droll, and precious. But this is a much more verbal film than The Fairy, and its characters more bourgeois, and at times it felt like a Woody Allen film in the way that it delves into and parodies the philosophical preoccupations of its overly-intellectual characters. Half the humor is in the way the characters try to rationalize their irrational behavior. If the humor is hard to pin down, it’s not just that it’s drier than a straight gin martini, but also because it walks a fine line between mockery and empathy. Violet is a nut, but she knows it. There’s something winning about the way she bravely battles on with her nutty theories despite the fact that she is a deeply damaged soul.

There isn’t a story so much as a situation and a large group of characters that keep swirling around in new configurations caused by new revelations. None of the characters is really developed much. Some aren’t even revealed much. There isn’t really even any central conflict. It’s more lyrical than narrative, perhaps, spinning around the emotional states of the group of women as they fall in love and are betrayed or disappointed or otherwise distressed. There are comic riffs, like Rose’s constant concern about “playboys and operators,” that function like motifs. Thus it’s something like a musical too, and it does court the comparison, in its use of music, it’s Fred Astaire references, and its dancing finale.

It’s a very strange tone it strikes. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything else like it, for better or worse. Maybe it feels a little like Wes Anderson, too, in the way it mixes deadpan satire with eccentric, whimsical behavior. Is it good at what it’s trying to do? I’m not sure. I laughed a lot, so there’s that. There was a lot of laughter in the crowd I saw it with, but all of us seemed to be laughing at different things, like we were each laughing alone at our own private jokes.


Damsels in Distress (2012) — 3 Comments

  1. I saw The Last Days of Disco, but it was quite a while ago. What you describe about this movie sounds like The Last Days of Disco, including the verbalness, the dry humor, and even the dancing finale.

    • I’ve got that one in my Netflix queue. It seems to be the one of Stillman’s that gets talked about the most.

      I typically like visually-oriented films more than verbally-oriented films, or at least that’s what I tell myself. Although I was watching Fassbinder’s science fiction film, World on a Wire, last night, and I’m not sure how I’d categorize that one in terms of visual vs. verbal.

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