Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Apr 16, 2012 6:30 pm 
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Healing the world with dance and a nice soap scent

What's happening with Whit Stillman? The distinctive East Coast preppie auteur hasn't made a movie in 13 years, and I'm not sure if he has lost his touch or I've forgotten how to tune in to him. Perhaps both. I absolutely loved those three earlier movies he made, Metropolitan, Barcelona, and Last Days of Disco. I thought they were almost too good to be true. They captured a certain sensibility that seemed close to me, and at the same time it was heightened. The dialogue was as good as Oscar Wilde or Jane Austen, with touches of both. Damsels in Distress has the same kind of droll, literate dialogue, at least on the part of its dominant, female characters. But it really otherwise has a very strange feel to it, and I never quite got my footing. It's nice to have Whit Stillman back, but I wish he'd make another movie soon, now that he's gotten warmed up again. (Whether there's a chance of this is hard to say.) Meanwhile I no doubt need to watch Damsels in Distress a few more times, because its dialogue, like that of Stillman's eaerlier pictures, is so elaborate and constant it needs to be studied to be fully appreciated. Part of my disappointment is just due to the fact that after such a long wait the idea of a new Whit Stillman film aroused in me a degree of anticipation impossible to satisfy with one film.

I don't quite believe the fiction that it's just Stillman's lead trio of girls at the Seven Sisters college, now coed, who think their world is in decline, led by the inimitable Violet (Greta Gerwig, the film's dominant voice). It's Whit himself. And since he's now 60, a long way from his debutante ball days, he may feel out of touch and out of sympathy with a large swath not only of the elite eastern twenty-something and thirty-something worlds he focused on earlier, but even more with the world at large. His solution is to imagine a small part of the world being made more civilized again.

Damsels focuses a lot on college Neanderthals, whom Violet and her several acoyltes consider it their duty to help. Violet has two close followers, one of whom is named Heather (Carrie MacLemore); one can't help but think of the Alpha Girls of that Eighties classic with its three Heathers. Violent is often opposed by one of her group, Rosa, played by Megalyn Echikunwoke, who has a cool British accent, and, being both beautiful and descended from Nigerian royalty, naturally speaks with ease and confidence. Obviously in this kind of film how you deliver your lines is of the utmost importance. Alas one of the group, Carrie MacLemore, does not enunciate clearly. A transfer student called Lily (Analeigh Tipton), who speaks very clearly indeed, is flattered to be taken into the group, but is rather appalled by Violet's ideas, and also often opposes them. Indeed opposition here is important as a way of heightening the dialogue while allowing Violent to expound her views, many of which are crazy, and some of which are clearly erroneous.

Focusing on unhandsome, dull boys, and seeking to reform them, seems an absurd and quixotic gesture and its quirk is signified by Violet's system of curing suicidality by teaching depressed students to dance, and trying to rid the most Animal-House-like dorm of its grunge and bad hygiene by sending its occupants gold envelopes containing nicely scented soap. The boys are so hopeless they stink, and one of them never learned the names of the colors. Violent herself, as mentioned, is misinformed, and often mistaken, but she is serenely confident. One gathers that in Whit's semi-brave new world, 'tis not good to be totally stupid, but 'tisn't necessary to know too much. A certain degree of willed ignorance is a way of keeping out the undesirable exterior world: one sees this tendency in Nancy Mitford's early novels. It's called eccentricity.

This isn't quite what was going on in Stillman's earlier movies, which are more from the viewpoint of young men, who tend to focus on romance, marriage, jobs, and, of course, discos. What may set them apart is that they take place in a more sophisticated environment, without focusing on the underprivileged in need of reform, and more showers.

One concern that did exist before is the notion that handsome and smart people are too full of themselves and too much trouble. This is why Violent advises going for dimmer types and does so herself, by dating Frank (Ryan Metcalf), the goofy frat boy who hasn't leaned the names of the primary colors. Though Violent and her "sisters" run a Suicide Prevention Center, her greatest dream is to start a new dance craze, and the movie ends with a performance of her creation, "The Sambola!" This is a charming and cheering but also somewhat lame kind of finale.

There are quite handsome young men who come and go, including Adam Brody as a student who also pretends to be another person, involved in non-profit work, and a foreign chap temporarily embroiled with Lily, called Xavier (Hugo Becker of "Gossip Girl"), whose purpose in the story I never quite gathered.

I am not saying that Damsels in Distress is a failure. It's still a distinctive piece of work, as is constantly signaled by the nonstop and often hilarious dialogue. It is delightful to observe contemporary people who pay close attention to what they are saying and how they say it and do not interrupt their conversation to look at iPhones or iPads. There are lots of good cast members. Gerwig in particular, who was once merely the queen of mumblecore but got Hollywood's eye with roles in movies like Greenberg and No Strings Attached, now seems headed for the big time. Her serene self-possession sets Damsel's style. I would recommend this to anybody interested in American auteurs, and if you liked the Wasp world of Igby Goes Down, you'll have to memorize the dialogue of all Stillman's whole oeuvre. But I don't think I will ever be quite satisfied with this effort, and one of the chief reasons is that the break between it and the last Whit Stillman was too long and neither he nor we will ever catch up.

Damsels in Distress debuted at Venice last September, and was shown at Toronto, BFI London, and several other festivals, It opened theatrially in the US April 6, 2012.

NPR has a wise and kind review by the excellent Jeannette Catsoulis. Dana Stevens of Slate more accurately delineates this movie's flaws and the features of Stillman's best work.

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