Damsels in Distress: directed and written by Whit Stillman
Comedy of manners can be a difficult trick to pull off. For the writer the quandary is twofold – how does one decide which manners are worthy of making fun of for comedy? From then, the issue becomes how to offer a parodic representation of a group without being mean-spirited or humourless Stillman avoids these problems in what beccomes his joyously comedic Damsels in Distress. The film is a fine confluence of comedy, social observation, fantasy and musicality enhanced by a Stillman’s searing ability to evoke mood. Mood is one of the things which work to great effect in cinema but can become illusory in the way it’s difficult to establish. With the right writerly tricks, establishing the right mood means that regardless of how strange the characters on screen may be – if the mood is on point, the entire thing sings. And Damsels in Distress. It doesn’t just sing, it resonates.
In fact, Seven Oaks could be something of a garden of Eden response to college life, and not just because of the nods to flora. Get it? Violet, Lily, Rose, Heather – the four principal females are named after flowers and it’s one of my favourite suggestions of the subtle nuances of Stillman’s effective use of wordplay in the film. Off the top of my head I cannot recall a recent comedy which depends so much on talky humour as much as this. Damsels in Distress is whip smart even in the moments where it’s being deliberately silly and Stillman pushes the audience further by making us question out allegiances in the subtlest of ways. One is never too certain who he’s poking fun at. (The “right” answer is probably everyone – himself included.) Stillman’s love for words shows, and as a word-lover myself that aspect of its humours lands especially well for me. The specific humour of the words translates better on screen than it would in a review, as can be expected. But Stillman’s isn’t only interested in food for thought by way of humour. The sight gags, though lesser, are just as sharp – the way the four girls appear in different shots, a campus fracas where the participants are clad in togas, a hilarious suicide attempt (no, really) and the continuous excellent use of costuming (take a boy Ciera Wells your work was on point). And what makes the film so much more remarkable is that it lulls you into expecting only an easy charming humour which will make you smile only but halfway through it manages, in the most innocuous of ways, to move from merely humorous to steadily, increasingly hilarious.
Admittedly, the cast helps. Yes, the completely effervescent Greta Gerwig and her appealing cadence here is deserving of significant kudos but the film’s entire band of actors (are they just perfectly casted, or such fine actors – or both?) are a marvel. Analeigh Tipton may seem just slightly at sea as the nearest thing to an audience surrogate, but her caginess dissipates soon. Megalyn Echikunwoke’s wise Rose and Carrie MacLemore’s ditzy Heather are worthy sidekicks enhancing the centre of Violet, but often pulling focus from her, too, with their specific characterisations. Of the supporting cast, though, it’s Adam Brody’s inexplicably delightful “playboy operator” who’s most engaging. And it’s because of this charm he effuses alongside Gerwig that a final joyous song-and-dance number is so on-point.
Lovely / B+