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Damsels in Distress
Please Note: The stills used here are taken from promotional materials, not the Blu-ray edition under review.
Whit Stillman is still Whit Stillman after all these years. The godfather of Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. Like the Terence Malick of college-aged dramedies.
Thirteen years after The Last Days of Disco, which seemingly ended a storytelling cycle about ushering the disaffected and privileged out of the illusions of early adulthood, writer/director Stillman has returned with a sweet, urbane comedy about university life. Damsels in Distress is an imperfect, episodic film that manages to garner a lot of laughs and even some genuine sentiment. At times, it almost seems to be a parody of itself, preserving Stillman's ideal world in a hermetic bubble; at other times, it is magical in its overthinking, like a New Yorker short story adapted by Jacques Demy.
Greta Gerwig (Greenberg) leads an ensemble cast as Violet, a self-invented arbiter of taste, morals, and social mores. She is the leader of a group of girls who run their small college's Suicide Prevention Center, prescribing donuts and coffee along with tap dance and unconventional philosophizing to the school's most depressed students. At the start of Damsels in Distress, Violet and her pals decide to adopt a transfer student, Lily (Analeigh Tipton, who was so good in Crazy Stupid Love), and make her a part of their group. It's a sly send-up of the Mean Girls model: Hey, girl, don't go with them, go with us.
Unsurprisingly, Lily is both seduced and repulsed by Violet's ideas. Stillman's script tracks their up-and-down relationship and their many debates over proper behavior and even the semantics of social interaction. Violet, who only dates dimwitted, unattractive men, loses her frat boy beau (Ryan Metcalf) to one of the sad girls she tries to help, while Lily is caught between smooth-talking Charlie (Adam Brody from The OC) and skeevy Eurotrash playboy Xavier (Hugo Becker). They swap clothes and they even swap boys, and eventually come to some understanding: both are seeking their place in the world by their own means, Violet's are just more pronounced than Lily's.
Starting with his early-90s debut, Metropolitan, Whit Stillman's movies have always had a certain archness to them. His films could easily be dismissed as twee paeans to the upper classes, but to do so would be to miss the refined self-satire that quietly simmers underneath the onscreen action. Damsels in Distress has the broadest comedic strokes of any of his four features, particularly in his exaggerated portrayals of the fraternity brothers (theirs is a Roman system, not Greek) and the common kids in the regular dorms. What he spares these "lessers" is the self-importance of youth. Early on, Violet draws a line between herself and the editor of the school paper (an excellent Zach Woods, from In the Loop and TV's The Office, playing what would have been the Chris Eigeman role ten years ago), citing his arrogance as her primary motivator for hating him. Lily immediately points out the inherent hypocrisy in such a statement, an accusation that Violet owns. Quite winningly, in fact. Greta Gerwig, who impresses more and more with each movie, manages to create a kind of innocent self-awareness. As Violet herself says, good intentions matter.
Not every part of Damsels in Distress works so well. For instance, I normally like Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation), but her two scenes as an angry dancer at the Suicide Prevention Center stand out as overly insistent. The actress' Janeane Garofalo impression calls too much attention to itself. Other scenes come off as similarly unnecessary anecdotes, failing to contribute to the whole. Ironically, this looseness is also inherent to the charm of Damsels in Distress. If Stillman had succumbed to pulling the narrative together tighter, it wouldn't be quite the same.
Ultimately, what the filmmaker is trying to do here is evoke some old fashioned Hollywood self-invention. Violet may have made up her name and continually lies about her past and her cousin Pat in Philadelphia, but it's all born of the desire to have a happier life, which she then compulsively tries to share with the rest of the world. Her belief that obsessive behavior can unlock happiness eventually translates into attempts to create a "worldwide dance craze," a device that in turn allows Stillman to embrace the movie musical and its skewed representation of an idealized world. Like the aforementioned Mister Anderson, Whit Stillman is most comfortable when retreating into an imagined retro aesthetic, and his cinema ends up being about the clash between this rarefied lifestyle and the reality of the here-and-now. Damsels in Distress doesn't refute the fantasy, nor does it necessarily champion it--neither Violet nor Lily wins, both have their failings--but rather, Stillman accepts that there is nothing wrong with, from time to time, wanting to imagine the world in your own image, whatever you choose for that image to be.
Damsels in Distress comes to Blu-Ray as a 1080p High-Definition widescreen transfer (1.85:1 aspect ratio). The movie looks great, with wonderful color timing and a strong level of detail. Skin tones are warm and natural, and the depth of detail is strong. It easily looks as good as when I saw it in the theatre. Being shot on digital, it transfers over exceptionally well.
The original soundtrack is mixed in 5.1 DTS-HD MA, and it sounds really good. There's not necessarily a lot of ambience, but the sound design is very dialogue focused and all of that comes through really clear. When there is background noise, it's placed in the scene carefully. Music sounds great, too, with subtle swells that fill up the room.
Subtitles are available in English, English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Whit Stillman and the main members of the cast--Gerwig, Brody, Tipton, Echikunwoke, and MacLemore--sit together for a chatty audio commentary, recorded the afternoon of the day of the premiere. They get a really good dialogue going, giving viewers lots of details about how the movie came together. It's also cool to hear a young cast discuss Stillman's process with him and talk about his older movies. Also, that Stillman compares Damsels in Distress to Archie comics!
Two featurettes take us into the production, including a fairly standard 10-minute behind the scenes that includes interviews and on-set footage. There is also a 28-minute Q&A called "An Evening with Damsels in Distress," featuring Stillman and the main cast talking after a screening. There is some similar ground as covered in the commentary, but the added questions brings out a different dynamic.
There are five deleted scenes, running just over 13 minutes. They are basically character scenes, extra conversations, and stuff that doesn't advance the plot. The outtakes reel has 6 minutes of bloopers.
There are also trailers and an ad for the soundtrack.
I'm a Whit Stillman fanboy, so it probably surprises no one when I rank Damsels in Distress as Highly Recommended. This charming Greta Gerwig-lead comedy exists in a special space, timeless and out of time, hearkening back to classic Hollywood moviemaking. Full of wry humor and awkward relationship mishaps, Damsels in Distress is a winning effort from a unique talent. What other movie are you going to see this year that includes Fred Astaire-inspired dance numbers in the middle of an otherwise non-musical narrative? The Blu-Ray presentation is excellent, complete with a solid collection of extras.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.