The titular damsels of writer/director Whit Stillman’s new movie, his first in 14 years, are in each pretty, preppy, poised and alert to the world in their highly selective way. Each are named after flowers, each are odour-sensitive, each strives to use their ostensibly superior ethical, intellectual and interactive skills to fortify the quality of student life at Seven Oaks College. Their tactics include suicide prevention through tap-dancing (the handmade poster on wall of the suicide prevention center reads COME ON, IT’S NOT THAT BAD!) and going out with boys who are neither handsome, nor charming, nor smart. (One of them is so dumb he doesn’t even know his colours.) By rewarding the male doofi (that’s plural for doofus) of Seven Oaks with their companionship, these damsels feel they can usher these doofi from the life of aimless idiocy to which they seem surely destined to a more enlightened and socially meaningful place. Of course, dating doofi also prevents the damsels from experiencing such annoying unpleasantries as heartbreak.
Herein lays the very special comic tone that Stillman aspires to and frequently apprehends in Damsels in Distress: whether or not his characters are actually from privilege they each work arduously to cultivate both the airs and the sense of altruistic vocation they associate with privilege, and such airs and ambitions constitute both the damsels’ folly and their persistent charisma. Most are well-intentioned emotional cowards, but Stillman knows that there’s more to be gained from sympathizing with them and their quixotic pretentions than looking down his nose at them. You might have hated these damsels from a distance when you went to school with them, but viewed through Stillman’s generous, stylized, idiosyncratic gaze, they become people you want to spend more time with.
Perhaps idiosyncratic is putting things too mildly. The movie’s chief damsel, Violet, is always, even in casual conversation, speaking lines like, “Must we tether ourselves from comment because we ourselves are human too?” She sounds out each word carefully, ensures that each sentence is complete, and doing so bears little resemblance to the sorts of characters found in virtually any contemporary American youth comedy. Fortunately she’s played by Greta Gerwig, the actress (and occasional writer and director) probably most closely associated with such (if you’ll excuse my use of this very stupid genre title) “mumblecore” movies as Hannah Takes the Stairs, Baghead and House of the Devil. Gerwig’s definitely not mumbling here. In fact, I’d go so far as to suggest that in Gerwig Stillman’s found his ideal actor, one who intuits the cadences of his anachronistic comic style and embodies the delicate imbalance of his quirky, sometimes fabulous character conceits.
Which isn’t to say that everything in Damsels flies. The meandering quality of the narrative eventually catches up with itself, and a closing musical sequence is neither awkward enough nor elegant enough to keep from falling flat. But it does have the funniest suicide attempt I think I’ve seen in a movie, its use of motel-issue soap as an agent of soul-healing is hilariously absurd, and, more importantly, its central characters are never given anything less than a slew of contradictions, conflicting desires and other compelling complications. They are, to be sure, comic constructs, but they also resonate with lived experience, which is what good comedy is all about.