Damsels in Distress

Aptly named director Whit Stillman has one of those rapier wits. He possesses an ear for language, but the intellectual, almost pedantic discourse can sometimes put people off.  I, however, find his ear for dialogue absolutely scintillating even when espoused by individuals I find rather arrogant. In the past Whit Stillman has always presented what he describes as the “urban haute bourgeoisie” with a sentimentality that made them likable if not immediately identifiable. His debut and magnum opus was 1990’s Metropolitan. Its depiction of a group of Upper East Side Manhattanites making the rounds at debutante balls was wholly unique, particularly for its portrayal of young affluent intellectuals and the way they spoke. The script earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Original Screenplay.

What makes Damsels in Distress different from Stillman’s other works, is that the script is much more shallow this go around. For the very first time, He seems to have a contempt for these people. We are presented with Violet a young collegiate leader of a girl posse who exalt cleanliness and tap dance as things to aspire to. Her forewarning on the perils of dating seem to contradict her actions which makes her a rather laughable figure.  That’s nothing however when compared to the great unwashed that she hopes to motivate.  One guy can’t even tell the difference between colors because, well he skipped that grade. It’s rather perplexing. Whit Stillman’s preoccupation with the preppy class is a rarity indeed. While most filmmakers view people of high social rank as objects of derision, he has an obvious affection for the group. These are after all his peeps. He came from a rather privileged background. His father was a Democratic politician – an assistant secretary of commerce under President John F. Kennedy. His godfather is E. Digby Baltzell, an academic who popularized the term WASP in a 1964 book he wrote.

Greta Gerwig is our main damsel. She came to prominence as the female lead in Noah Baumbach’s 2010 film Greenberg opposite Ben Stiller. She resembles Chloë Sevigny in features but is more approachable in temperament. She favors the quirkiness of Zooey Deschanel over Sevigny’s more caustic nature.  Here she’s the appointed leader of her little clique who work for the betterment of her class – that’s class as in college mind you. The American actress is rather winning in the role even when she’s being ridiculous. She sends bars of soap to the local fraternity as if they’ve never heard of the hygiene product. She carries herself with an arrogance that is mesmerizing. Gerwig and her gang of 3 (later 4) are the types that are sympathetic enough to volunteer at the campus suicide prevention center but seem more concerned with making sure the free donuts they provide are only consumed by those victims that are truly depressed. That’s amusing, yes, but her hypocrisy makes her an unrelatable personality.

Damsels in Distress is populated with preppy characters that seem to inhabit some alternate universe where catchphrases, pop culture and TV doesn’t exist. These girls speak with a theatrical air of authority that makes them a fascinating lot. Their world is definitely unconventional. Some of it rooted in sense, the rest rooted in nonsense. They talk with such dignity and confidence, we feel compelled to listen. For a good part of the movie it works. Their sardonic banter is like spoken word poetry. Much of the conversation is captivating in its affected state. Yet there’s a shapeless lack of focus that ultimately does the whole production in. It ends with a random musical number that while pleasant, does nothing to address everything we’ve watched before it. It feels a little, “since I couldn‘t write an ending, how’s about a song and dance ?” What exactly was the point of all this? I’m still not sure and for the first time, I don’t think Stillman knows either.

14 Responses to “Damsels in Distress”

  1. This looks like a movie I’d like. I’ll try to check it out, but probably on DVD. Thanks.


  2. I dunno – I look forward to seeing it on Friday before work; having not made a film since 1998’s THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO, I think Stillman may have simply been happy to get anything made and this was probably the most commercial of his decade plus of unmade projects. That said, Greta Gerwig and Stillman are way too brilliant a team to ignore (inspired I’d say) so I look very forward to this 🙂


  3. I watched the trailer the other day and found it rather interesting, even more so after reading your review. I’ll be definitely seeing this.


  4. Yeah, this film was not for me. I was completely bored. Everyone seemed very fake. No excitement , no drama, very little comedy. I kept dozing off.


  5. moviewriting Says:

    This film certainly sounds right up my street. I’ve heard such great things about Damsels, I’m really excited for it. If nothing, hopefully it’ll be available to stream here soon. Once again, great review Mark.


  6. I just saw Metropolitan about a week ago. I enjoyed it, but you can feel free to let me know why you love it so much. I just dont see loving it:



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