Thursday, April 5, 2012

A University’s Odd Universe: Where Damsels Go To Dance

Carrie MacLemore, Annaleigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke and Greta Gerwi star in Damsels in Distress

Mix 1930s screwball comedy with 1950s kitsch, while providing a wink and a nod to a smattering of contemporary concerns. What do you get? Damsels in Distress, the first film from writer-director Whit Stillman in 13 years. Back then, he was a young indie darling thanks to his award-winning Metropolitan (1990) and The Last Days of Disco (1998), with a less acclaimed Barcelona (1994) tossed in for good measure. Now middle-aged, his interests remain rooted in the discreet charm of the “urban haute bourgeoisie,” as a Disco denizen refers to her fading social milieu. This fascination may be the perfect fit for a filmmaker whose mother was a genuine debutante and whose godfather was the man who coined the term WASP to describe White Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

There are at least two black students in evidence, including Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), at Seven Oaks University, a fictitious New England school that is the focus of Damsels. But she’s British, so perhaps that releases her from the burden of U.S. ethnic divisions. The emphasis is on class – seemingly upper – instead of race, but Stillman certainly offers no examination of the American Dream like that found in, say, The Great Gatsby. Literary classics aside, money isn’t really mentioned in the screenplay, except when the self-exiled lead protagonist Violet (Greta Gerwig) briefly checks into a Motel 4 as a less expensive alternative to the low-grade Motel 6. Fluffy fun until the story begins to run out of steam, the Stillman picture both ridicules and celebrates its clueless, anachronistic characters.

Director Whit Stillman
Rose and Violet are among a quartet of young women who run a suicide prevention center, where a sign reads: “Come on, it’s not too bad.” Nothing is too bad for these quaint, inexplicably optimistic coeds. They serve donated doughnuts only to people deemed clinically depressed and insist that tap dancing is a crucial therapy. Violet, their queen bee, wants to improve everyone according to her own high, albeit loony, standards. Although yearning for the comfort of conformity, she is a true eccentric intent on starting an international dance craze called the Sambola.

Meanwhile, she has convinced her acolytes that dating intellectually inferior lunkheads is a safer bet than going after more erudite guys that might reject them. Consequently, the gals hang out with frat boys in the college’s Roman rather than Greek system, some of whom never learned to identify colors because they skipped nursery school and went straight into kindergarten. Far brighter but incredibly arrogant, Rick (Zach Woods) is a nemesis for Violet and her cohorts in his role as editor of the school newspaper, The Daily Complainer. These are among the more humorous bits in a saga that soon becomes desperately whimsical. But Violet’s insignificant other, Frank (Ryan Metcalf), ultimately is not faithful, which sends her into a spiral of confusion.

Violet’s coterie, wearing the kind of shirtwaist dresses and cardigan sweaters that went out with the Cold War, represents a cultural throwback. In fact, not a single cell phone or iPad is ever spotted on the campus, which exists nowhere in time. A musical finale involves the Gershwin song “Things Are Looking Up,” featured in the 1937 Fred Astaire movie, A Damsel in Distress. That production’s tagline – “It’s smooth! It’s smart! It’s snappy!” – is obviously what Stillman had in mind by giving the presumably modern-day Damsels so many retro flourishes. But two issues, suicide attempts and sexuality, are definitely of the moment, even though he tries to cover them in the same witty manner that defines the rest of his lighthearted romp.

Greta Gerwig and Adam Brody
Gerwig delivers a talkative, sweetly deadpan portrayal. As in Greenberg (2010), her gawkiness is tempered by charisma. Stillman’s clever dialogue flies by fast, much as it would in a Katharine Hepburn movie from earlier decades. It takes a few minutes to digest the implications of “I love clichéd and hackneyed expressions,” which Violet proclaims at one point, embracing trite terms as accumulated insight rather than limited thinking.

Lily (Analeigh Tipton), the newest member of Violet’s group, is sleeping with Xavier (Hugo Becker), a French grad student who thinks his supposed Cathar roots require him to practice only anal intercourse. (The Cathars, a European religious sect of the 12th and 13th centuries, apparently were vegan troubadours dedicated to free love and gender equality. How 1960s of them!) His predilection and her resulting physical discomfort are treated as a joke, frankly one that might make viewers squirm. Not exactly smooth, smart and snappy.

Nonetheless, the film is too busy with other subplots to dwell on any potential real-world dilemma: Charlie (Adam Brody) shows up, pretending to be somebody he isn’t. The normally overconfident Violet goes on a self-actualization sabbatical – to Motel 4 – and discovers a fragrant soap that could solve the body-odor problem in dormitories. Some Seven Oaks nincompoops attempt to kill themselves by jumping off the roof of a building that’s just two stories high. Stillman is not always skilled at navigating the fine line between parody and pathos. Heathers (1989) was satirical enough to create laughs with murders-disguised-as-suicides in a revenge tale about high school bullies that turns tragic. Damsels is campy fare that sees only the twee side of torment. After all, things are looking up, aren’t they?
Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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