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Damsels in Distress (3 stars)

Whit Stillman's return to filmmaking features wordy, droll dialogue but often inept direction

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Damsels in Distress

(15) 99min

Following a 14-year break from filmmaking, American writer-director Whit Stillman returns to the big screen with another highly idiosyncratic comedy, one that audiences are likely to find either delightfully urbane or else utterly excruciating. Despite the lengthy hiatus, Stillman’s distinctive style, wordy and droll (traits that have prompted favourable comparisons with one-time contemporary Hal Hartley and antecedent Woody Allen), remains very much intact.

Stillman’s 1990 Oscar-contender debut Metropolitan was populated by Manhattan preppy types, his 1994 follow-up Barcelona by European filmmakers and 1998’s The Last Days of Disco by Studio 54-era clubbers. In each case the cast of characters were talkative, intellectual and pretentious. Ditto Stillman’s fourth film, which focuses on a group of prim female undergrads lead by the hygiene-fixated obsessive-compulsive Violet (nicely played by rising star Greta Gerwig) who take it upon themselves to clean up the college campus by rescuing their fellow students from depression, hedonism and other perceived ills.

Where Damsels in Distress differs from Stillman’s earlier films is in the replacement of pointed wit with studied silliness. Conversations between characters are frequently completely inane and are punctuated with bouts of slapstick physical comedy and outbreaks of song and dance (the climactic show-stopper underlines the title riff on the 1937 Fred Astaire musical A Damsel in Distress). It’s this relentless stupidity that’s likely to divide audiences into two camps: those who find the proceedings ‘clever stupid’ and those for whom it’s simply ‘stoopid stupid’.

It doesn’t help Stillman’s case that Damsels in Distress suffers from direction that’s often uninspired and inept, but then Stillman was always a better wordsmith than visual stylist. All that said, it’s good to see such a filmmaker with such a genuinely unique sensibility making movies again.

Selected release from Fri 27 Apr.

Damsels in Distress

  • 3 stars
  • 2012
  • US
  • 99 min
  • 15
  • Directed by: Whit Stillman
  • Written by: Whit Stillman
  • Cast: Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton
  • UK release: 27 April 2012

The titular damsels are a group of female undergrads led by the obsessive-compulsive Violet (Gerwig, good) who set about rescuing their fellow students from perceived ills. It's good to have director Stillman back after 14 years, even if the pointed wit has been replaced by studied silliness.

Elsewhere on the web

Damsels in Distress (2011) Movie trailer

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