Monday, 10 September 2012

Ladies in their Sensitivities

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.
The entire thing is an incredibly sweet, perhaps even twee, tale of Co-ed college life in a fantastical Eastern American university. The self-titled Violet and her posse of Rose, Heather and (sceptical) denizen Lily observe the world around them of inferior college-men and hope to perform a bizarre sort of social outreach by dating the lesser fortunate and helping them realise their true potential. With the men on campus being a mix of playboy-operators and hopelessly idiotic doofuses, er doufi, there’s much work to be done. As Violet glibly tells the girl before a frat-party, “There’s enough material here for a lifetime of social work.” Alas, we’re only here for a few months, not a lifetime, but the few months vis-à-vis two hours is more than enough to offer a an animated romp through the lives of these unique people, or better this unique world. This University – Seven Oaks – is unlike anything I’ve experienced, the moods are heightened. The things which are silly in real life are just a bit sillier here, the graceful ladies are just a bit more exquisite, the unintelligent gents are just a bit more obtuse. The college itself is something of a fantasy – a glorious, peculiar fantasy.

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.
...more below on the game cast, the power of The Samobla! and this sweetly funny romp...

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.

Because, aaaah, have I buried the lead? The peculiar Violet’s most ardent dream in life is to begin an international dance craze – “The Sambola!”. For dance, brings people together. A statement like that might be considered an effete cliché in another dimension. “The hundred, perhaps thousands of clichéd expressions our language has bequeathed us are a stunning treasure trove of human insight and knowledge”. To a line like that we’d be inclined to wince in suspicion. But, because Stillman so effectively evokes a mood specific to this fantasy college, and because Gerwig is so earnest in his presentation of this unusual girl, we believe. Or, we believe that she believes which is more than half the battle. We do not bite our nails wondering if The Sambola! can or will become an international dance craze, but when those zippy closing credits unfold (delightful in every way) we know that Violet is right. The headiness which comes with the feeling of happy music and dance can make for fun-times. Unfolding with the same winsome charm that a garden of flowers would have to the the olfactory senses (an important point considering the way these ladies respond to spell), buoyed by a fine cast, and a sharp (but, funny, but smartly funny) script Damsels in Distress cannot be anything but lovely. Slight, bijou, special, effortless and sweet.

Lovely / B+


Squasher88 said...

I don't understand how this film delighted me so much (it's totally not the kind of film that usually appeals to em), but I found it so absurdly funny. There were a couple of times when the brilliance of the humor hit me a couple seconds later and I would burst out in genuine laughter.

I don't know either if this was just good casting or good acting (Megalyn Echikunwoke in particular seemed surprisingly comfortable in this).

I had a feeling you would like this too. It's lovely indeed.

Nick Prigge said...

Hmmmmmm. A very interesting review. I gotta say, I was not overwhelmed by this one when I saw it. I found it quite funny in spots and its overall nature intrigued me, but there was something about it as a whole that I didn't think gelled.

This review, though, really makes me want to give it another look. "...something of a garden of Eden response to college life..." That's an interesting idea.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

shane i hope these performers are lucky enough to have goo careers after this. i suppose gerwig is assure of that, and hopefully brody but i like echikunwoke too. her zany pronunciation of "playboy operator" is still making me smile.

nick well if it makes you reassess it, great. it's a weird film, and so strange but so irresolutely charming i can't resist it. (on occasion it reminded me of clueless, 15/20 years ago alicia woul have rocked the lead role opposite rudd, right?)

Squasher88 said...

I love when Echikunwoke says "She's a rat. She's a bitch. She's a rat bitch."

Btw Andrew, there was one problem I had with the movie. I thought the humor for the dumb frat boys was a bit too broad. It felt like they were in a completely different movie, like Adam Sandler/American Pie type. Did you have that problem?

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

shane "rat bitch" was another hilarious moment.

fair question you raise there. because the damsels are our protagonist i was worried, slightly, that in being satirical whit my too easy on them or too harsh on their distresses, but any issues i may have had with how broadly they were drawn sort of went away at that moment with thor and the rainbow. it IS still silly, but it's also incredibly kind and sweet which makes me think even the parody comes from a place of whimsy an not cynicism.

i hope that doesn't sound like a copout answer.

Squasher88 said...

Actually that's a good answer! What a curious little movie.