Friday, November 22, 2013

Damsels in Distress (2011)

USA, 99 minutes
Director/writer: Whit Stillman
Photography: Doug Emmett
Music: Mark Suozzo
Editor: Andrew Hafitz
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Carrie MacLemore, Megalyn Echikunwoke, Analeigh Tipton, Ryan Metcalf, Jermaine Crawford, Caitlin FitzGerald, Zach Woods, Hugo Becker, Adam Brody, Billy Magnussen, Aubrey Plaza, Nick Blaemire

Director and writer Whit Stillman's first movie in over 10 years is silly and shrewd from beginning to glorious end, with other agenda items signaled in various ways: The title bears a close resemblance to A Damsel in Distress, a Fred Astaire vehicle from 1937 that also featured George Burns, Gracie Allen, and Joan Fontaine. Our modern-day damsels are named Heather, Lily, Rose, and Violet, a gorgeous and guileless bouquet that strides the campus of the elite Seven Oaks University like giants, attempting very hard to sort things out. Their distress is on the order of too much student body odor, too many suicides, and not enough compassion for fraternity house members.

"We're trying to make a difference in people's lives," explains the ringleader Violet (Greta Gerwig) to new recruit Lily (Analeigh Tipton). "One way to do that is to stop them from killing themselves. Have you ever heard of the expression 'Prevention is nine-tenths of the cure'? Well, in the case of suicide, it's actually 10-tenths."

The closest models are in Whit Stillman's other movies, with his unmistakable erudite dialogue—Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1992), and especially The Last Days of Disco (1998). After that, there's obvious affection for the '30s portmanteau, mixing up fanciful elements of comedy, romance, and drama, lathered over with musical numbers. Violet's greatest dream is to be responsible for starting a new international dance craze.

It's a great role for Greta Gerwig, who always seems a little strange and unnerving, with her impeccable sense of timing that constantly surprises. After rescuing a random girl named Priss (Caitlin FitzGerald) from an "attempted suicide in progress," Violet takes her to a coffee shop for cocoa. Priss opens up about her affection for the boy who just dumped her, speaking tenderly of a loving way he had of looking at her. "Do you know what I mean?" she asks Violet. Gerwig's response is a gem of subtle face movements and timing.

She's the star and deserves it but she is well supported by the others. Heather (Carrie MacLemore) does not speak often but listens well, with ever-varying displays of expression only now and then appropriate to the moment. She's a show all in herself, scene to scene. Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) has affected a British accent since a high school visit to England. She defends herself: "I was there, now I'm here … I'm from London." She is a childhood friend of Violet, which among other things is blatantly convenient for understanding the mysterious Violet. Rose is suspicious of everyone and everything, continually attacking people as "confidence tricksters" and their behavior as "playboy or operator moves."

For a small independent film, it's packed with bunches of odd characters and developments. One of the frat boys, Thor (Billy Magnussen), has never learned the names of colors, a source of profound shame for him. Others, such as Rose, dismiss this as impossible to understand, which only adds to his suffering. "Ed students" have begun to attempt suicide by throwing themselves off of a two-story building, not understanding it isn't high enough to kill them, only maim them (therein lies the tragedy, according to Rose). Lily takes up with a French graduate student, Xavier, who teaches her the ways of Cathar lovemaking.

People are remarkably open in Damsels in Distress about grave or typically private issues such as suicide or anal sex. Violet falls into a depression midway—which she prefers to call "a tailspin"—and goes wandering randomly. In search of her, the others wander randomly too, or ride in golf carts, calling her name. Violet ultimately finds herself at a diner where the patrons and staff are observing her closely. They ask her if she's one of those college students who come down there to commit suicide by stepping into the nearby blind curve in the road.

And on it goes. These are good, weird jokes, and they never really stop coming. As with all Stillman pictures, they go directly at buffooneries of the American white-bread upper class, concocting characters who are eloquent and incoherent and hilariously foolish at the same time. Here Stillman may even have overtopped himself with ludicrous exaggeration—the stupidity of the frat boys (remarkable), the maiming suicide attempts (with nice sound work), Lily's naivete, Violet's many annoying ways of being presumptuous.

What saves it—if it's saved at all, because you pretty much have to be on board with Gerwig's style to get this far—are a couple of things. First, it's obvious that everyone is having a great time. The four principals, preening and prinking away, love the camera and it loves them right back. Watching MacLemore wrinkle up a smile as Echikunwoke high-handedly dismisses one more person as a playboy or operator, while Gerwig gazes off blankly the way a cat does tracking something invisible, and Tipton anchors it as the sensible, bemused one who understands more or less they are insane (though ultimately she comes under the sway of Violet)—it's a fascinating and often hilarious clockwork of intricate behavior across so many frames.

Then it all ends on not one but two big musical numbers, the first a rehearsal that transmogrifies into a song and dance performance of "Things Are Looking Up." Which is swell-egant and everything, though suffering maybe a little from the obvious implicit comparisons to Busby Berkeley, Fred Astaire, etc., against which it inevitably falls short. I wish someone would give Whit Stillman the budget to try a few big movie musical numbers because I think he could do it (he's as good as ever at disco dancing, by the way, as the party scene here with "Another Night" clears up). Then—the Sambola, the attempt to launch an international dance craze proper, sending the movie out in high style. It doesn't really stand comparison with the "Love Train" ending of his last—not much does—but it will do.

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