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