Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Damsels in Distress

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS                  B                     
USA  (99 mi)  2011  d:  Whit Stillman               Official site

The past is gone, so we might as well romanticize it
—Charlie Walker/ Fred Packenstacker (Adam Brody)

Judging by the sparse audience for this theatrical release, people have no idea anymore what to expect from films unless it fits a specific type of movie where they can conveniently be categorized and shelved in video stores under drama, foreign, popular, comedy, adventure, children, etc.  As someone who sees a lot of art films, perhaps it’s easier to come to grips with a film like this that chisels out its own space in the cinema universe, perhaps best seen at a film festival where the stylistic artificiality would stand out, as there’s something clearly unique about writer/director Whit Stillman’s running dialog in this film, which is playfully fun, almost lightheaded, yet filled with literary commentary as if reading lines from a book.  Greta Gerwig is the indie *it* girl, seen here as Violet, an over-the-edge, slightly demented, but overly motivated college girl who insists her life be more than the insipidly vapid college experience that typically exists for all too many.  Stillman himself graduated from Harvard University in the early 70’s, while his father was a classmate of JFK at Harvard, ultimately serving in the Commerce Department under Kennedy.  Despite the prestige attached to such a highly influential university, there is also a layer of ivory tower inaccessibility attached to the experience which may seem completely unrealistic, where the make-believe world of students is a facsimile of the real thing.  This film reflects that gulf in reality, using a highly exaggerated sense of wit and sarcasm that uses caricature instead of authenticity in the story’s character development, where women are aspiring social workers hell-bent on fixing the obvious flaws of the Neanderthal caveman aspects of the male species.  Using a highly unusual cast of characters, they come down to two distinct social groups, the female damsels in distress, and the interchangeable males causing the distress.  While attending a preppy East Coast college, four girls led by Violet, each with floral names, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Heather (Carrie MacLemore), and Lily (Analeigh Tipton), comprise the protagonists who run the Suicide Prevention Center (where the word “Prevention” keeps falling off), while their male counterparts are Frank (Ryan Metcalf), Xavier (Hugo Becker), Charlie (Adam Brody), and Thor (Billy Magnussen), with plenty of colorful side characters. 

The gist of the film is that the experience, despite all the obvious advantageous opportunities, is an unhappy one, where characters continually fall into easily recognizable social traps where it’s easy to dispense advice to others, but then get down in the dumps when it happens to you.  Violet has this idealized sense that the world can be saved by simple acts of human kindness, and then when that fails, she has nothing left to fall back upon and heads into a tailspin of depression.  There’s the always interesting game of musical chairs where the girls seem to continually be switching guys with one another, getting hurt when the boneheaded actions of the guy sends them into a whirlwind of confusion.  Amusingly, when Violet chooses to utilize the benefits of her own suicide treatment plan and enroll in a tap-dancing therapy program, she’s told by one of the participants (who’s too depressed to dance) that she doesn’t qualify unless she’s been clinically diagnosed with depression.  Violet thought she could avoid all the heartbreak by developing a surefire plan to only date guys who are neither handsome nor intelligent, so the screen is filled with dweebs for guys who are so backward they still belong to Roman instead of Greek fraternities.  The continual dumbness of some of the guys can get a little irritating, but let’s face it, movies often pretend only guys with British accents attend preppy East coast schools.  Even Violet is not all what she seems and is a little bit of a fruitcake herself.  All of this is a satiric swipe at being cool, where this fearsome foursome, whose project is to improve the lives of others, are something of an eccentric lot themselves, where Lily’s defiance of groupspeak with her insistence that she wants to be normal comes across as a defiant and subversive act, like a revolt from the conformity of the pack.     

But it’s Violet’s idiosyncratic character that really excels, as she refuses to get mad at her rivals, or even her double-crossing boyfriends, always finding a convenient rationalization as a silver lining to excuse their dubious intentions, where she instead takes out her frustrations with her love to dance.  And if truth be told, the dancing sequences are among the most appealing in the film, not because they’re so choreographically complex, but because they generate fun and an infectious enthusiasm.  These scenes elevate the spirits of the participants, especially Violet who seems to secretly crave the idea of turning this film into a musical.  At one point, she’s caught up in a country music line dance that couldn’t be more exquisite in its simplicity, while in another she’s in rapturous delight recalling the breezy Hollywood romance of Fred Astaire and Joan Fontaine in “Things Are Looking Up” from A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS (1937) Stray Moments: A Damsel in Distress (1937) - YouTube (4:14).  There is a period of adjustment at the film’s outset where the audience has to adjust to the strangely archaic use of language, which may initially send some to the exits for the sheer off its rocker, absurdity element, but one has to acknowledge the clever wit behind the film’s broad-based, dark comedy, not the least of which is the retro look of the 50’s where dance crazes felt like a novel invention in rebellious defiance against the conformity of the era.  Underneath the artificial tone, there remains a free-spirited EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY (1988) subversive voice clearly reveling at this delightful social exposé of the college dynamic where little time is spent in the classroom and every minute of every day is spent analyzing and overanalyzing each minute detail of one’s chaotic personal lives, which for the first time in one’s carefully controlled childhood the multitude of choices can be simply overwhelming and the experience nothing less than liberating.     

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