Whit Stillman makes movies you either love or hate. His fascination with telling stories about yuppies tends to have that reaction. I generally enjoy his films. They portray characters and a world very few do. Twelve years later, Stillman makes a new film Damsels in Distress, and while the characters speak the instantly identifiable Stillman dialogue, something has changed. Something funny. Pure satire in a world unlike those the director has created in past films.
Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her two friends, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) and Heather (Carrie MacLemore), at Seven Oaks college are out to save the world. OK, maybe not the world, but definitely their boorish male counterparts and those deemed suicidal risks. Violet immediately targets Lily (Analeigh Tipton) as a new student in need of intervention. Lily isn’t a freshman as Violet guessed. She’s a sophomore transfer. She, unlike Violet’s entourage, doesn’t completely buy into the mission the trio is on. When the new foursome walks around the campus together for the first time the original trio nearly pass out from the supposed stench produced by a group of guys who walk by. Rose looks as though she may regurgitate her last meal. Lily is perplexed. Violet explains that Rose is especially sensitive to odors and the boys from a certain house are particularly odorous. In pity, Violet condescendingly sees it as her duty to reform these boys. No handsome and winsome young men for these young ladies. They’ll take the dufus who has yet learned his primary colors, thank you very much. And they’ll do this all in the name of saving a lower class; pulling them up from the depths to the heights of at least middling acceptably. The exaggerated attitude and actions pokes fun at both liberals doing more harm than good while they save the poor they wouldn’t want near their precious suburban homes or Evangelical Christians who have a disdain for the heathens they attempt to clean up and save from a life of sin.
There is little to no narrative holding Damsels together. Lily’s first year at Seven Oaks is filled with odds and ends. She provides a dose of reality in most scenes lacking everything but reality. Yet even Lily isn’t completely exempt from serving as a prop in Whitman’s satirical take on life at one of the oddest colleges in cinema history. She finds the wrong guys. Instead of dumb brutes she dates men of higher intellect who are anything but honorable. One is an eight year student posing as a successful young professional while another is an international student whose religion supposedly holds to a sexual “purity” that is anything but.
The suicide prevention center Violet heads up gives donuts to those in need of help. Don’t dare take a donut if you are not a candidate though. Donuts are for suicidal risks only. Violet promised the company providing the donuts that all the donations would go to those needing them, not those simply out to get a free pastry. Things get stranger. The preferred method of therapy is dancing. In fact, it’s the only thing resembling therapy of any sort. All other displays of help are in the form of interrogating potential “patients”, ensuring they are worthy of free doughnuts and dance sessions. If this sounds ridiculous and silly, it is. It is also very funny, as long as you don’t completely hate the characters and the world they inhibit. The arrogant, obnoxious girls and the dumb boys they seek to refine require buy-in or else Damsels will feel like a slog.
Debbie: You think I’m going to kill myself and make you look bad?
Violet: I’m worried that you’ll kill yourself and make yourself look bad.
Title cards split up the movie into sections not unlike a silent film or an episode of Frasier. The technique mostly works until the end when the movie overruns its optimal time and the title cards serve as reminders that the credits should be rolling. All good things must come to an end, some should come a little earlier than others.
Whit Stillman makes a welcome return after nearly a dozen years since his last film. Damsels in Distress is a witty comedy with commentary on a variety of topics but never heavy handed. The laughs come along with a satirical backdrop and characters to match. Not everyone’s cup of tea but possibly a surprise for those who haven’t enjoyed Stillman’s past films. Damsels was a pleasant surprise for me.