Sunday, May 06, 2012

Damsels in Distress

Few directors have had as much written about them WITHOUT making films as Whit Stillman. Damsels in Distress is Stillman's first film since 1998's The Last Days of Disco and only the fourth in a career that began with the still fresh Metropolitan. (Fun fact: Besides his four features, the only other directorial credit on Stillman's IMDB page is an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street.) It's neither good nor bad to say that Damsels feels like it was made by someone who hasn't directed in over a decade. The film doesn't feel grounded in any particular time, and technology doesn't seem to have penetrated the campus of Seven Oaks University. But a movie in which the characters texted and flirted via Facebook couldn't have come from Stillman's imagination. He's interested as as always in the ways that characters hide their emotional lives beneath a conversational fog of unprovable theories and would-be profound maxims. Violet (Greta Gerwig) and her followers (Carrie MacLemore and Megalyn Echikunwoke) run the campus "Suicide Prevention Center" while they each seek their own romantic partners and their own levels in the world. Watching Greta Gerwig's performance unfold is akin to realizing that you're actually drinking gin and not water. Once you're comfortable with the rhythms of Stillman's dialogue (a new design for living is always just around the corner), which Gerwig handles flawlessly, then a different kind of pleasure unfolds. When Violet's heart is broken and she alarms her friends by taking off, the movie never loses it's affection for her admittedly nutty worldview. Stillman has always regarded his still forming characters with love, and the fact that Violet may actually be ill doesn't change that fact here. Violet, and Gerwig's embodiment of her, are Stillman reclaiming his voice while admitting how odd it can sometimes sound.

 The actual plot of Damsels in Distress proceeds in bursts. Violet and her ladies "adopt" a transfer student named Lily (Analeigh Tipton) who is alternately charmed and appalled by Violet's obsessions (smells, intelligence) and behavior. Men stay mostly at the edges of the movie, with Adam Brody making the best impression as a student also inventing his own story. There's also a subplot that never quite comes together involving tap dancing, featuring a couple of tart scenes from Aubrey Plaza. I'll admit that my love of Stillman's earlier films colors my reaction to what's on screen here, but I can't conceal my delight at finding Stillman in his element after all these years. Here's to a vigorous second act from a director primed to comment, in his own sweet way, on our new class struggles.

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