Damsels in Distress
Directed by Whit Stillman, PG-13, 99 min., showing at Garden Cinemas, 26 Isaac St., Norwalk, (203) 846-8795, ghcinemas.com; and Avon Theatre Film Center, 272 Bedford St., Stamford, (203) 967-3660, avontheatre.org.
Are men imbeciles? Is the battle of the sexes more like a humanitarian mission in which the influence of women accounts for the presence of wit, compassion, fashion sense and hygiene? Would many of the world's problems be solved by a new dance craze or a fragrant bar of soap? Whit Stillman's surprisingly strange new film, Damsels in Distress, appears to address these questions. (And suggests that the answer to them is “yes.”) But it goes after its themes as if it were the skin of a Shakespearean marriage play, or a Jane Austen novel of manners, stitched to bones and muscles of a dumbass-dude campus comedy.
The film opens at a new-student orientation at Seven Oaks, a northeastern college. Three young women, all dressed in white and clearly looking for someone to help, spot Lily (a transfer student, it turns out, and thus not totally inexperienced in the ways of the undergrad) and shepherd her through the trials of this peculiar institution. We learn that Violet, played by the excellent yet peculiar Greta Gerwig, is definitely the alpha female, the self-possessed leader of her little group. The soundtrack — by one of the dudes from Fountains of Wayne — feels very “Love Boat.”
The characters, with their thickly applied prep-school poise and naive condescension, would be at home in Rushmore, Clueless, or Heathers. Yet the dialogue has that stilted, anachronistic stiffness and verbosity that is either a parody of — or a poorly rendered tribute to — upper-class ways; this part brings to mind Woody Allen, who has created an imagined style of conversation that is often imitated in film but rarely heard in real life. In his previous films, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, Stillman explored a similar subset of coddled collegiate types. But when the guys — the distress suppliers — show up, Damsels has flashes of Animal House and Old School, where the boneheadedness of frat life is shown to be both an I.Q.-deprived wasteland and a vision of hedonistic bliss.
Violet and her friends show Lily the school's suicide prevention center they help run. (Even the attempted suicides of their peers are largely inept, since most don't succeed, it's pointed out.) Along the way the girls warn Lily about the epidemic of bad B.O. at Seven Oaks — “that awful acrid odor.” Rose, one of the girls, suffers from “nasal shock” and must be briefly bedridden.
Aside from the rank stench, these damsels seem less distressed than bemused by the “atmosphere of male barbarism” that predominates at their college. They walk around the place like explorers with pith helmets, studying the natives and doing their best to edify their male peers, but mostly just enduring the indignities.
Lily is perplexed by all this and the quick spoonfuls of Violet's philosophies about love and life (good looks are to be avoided; look for a guy who is “frankly inferior”). “You like losers?” she asks Violet.
Well, yes, it turns out. Violet's boyfriend is Frank, a guy who is so stupid he doesn't even know what color his own eyes are, because to deduce that would somehow compromise his masculinity. “I'm not gonna go around checking what color my eyes are,” he says.
But maybe her fondness for Frank is simply a kind of outreach, a sort of romantic charity. Or maybe Violet's just another head case. And anyway, she asks, “Why this obsession with intelligence?”
The smart guys are perverts or liars. (“Confidence tricksters” is the phrase Rose uses repeatedly.) Lily's ex-boyfriend is a grad student in history who lures her back to bed only to induct her in the ways of the Cathars (a 12th century heretical sect from the south of France) who practiced what he calls “non-procreative lovemaking,” which, it is suggested, was basically through the backdoor. This becomes possibly the most demure and academic recurring gag about anal sex in film history.
By contrast, when we meet Charlie — he sends a round of drinks to Lily and a friend from across a crowded bar — he's handsome and intelligent and considerate, all the things that Violet warns against. It turns out that he's something of a fraud, too — pretending to be a professional when he's just a lowly student.
But Damsels In Distress is as much about that painful period — college — when young people have to forge an identity out of insufficient material. In the end, maybe being a phony with good intentions is better than being a genuine idiot. Either way, as the film's ending implies, life is better with good clothes, good toiletries and good dance moves.
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