Monday, April 30, 2012

Cultivation theory

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. 


Feminema said...

DO these people resonate with lived experience? Oh JB, I think I must differ with you there. I finally saw the film -- and loved it, but because of the utter cartoon absurdity of it. I wouldn't have guessed that Stillman might be our own era's incarnation of PG Wodehouse. I will agree that he lacks Jeeves' ability to tie it all up in the end with a bow (and perhaps one of those 1930s cocktails that includes whipped egg yolk or some such); that dance number felt a little bit like a cop-out.

But oh, that dialogue. Be still, my screwball heart.

JB said...

For me, it really did resonate. Questions of heightened style aside (and sometimes I feel like heightening things can actually make them more resonant than ostensible naturalism), I felt like I recognized all of Damsels' major characters and their motives, actions and affectations most especially. Their avoidance of giving un-deformed expression to emotional needs, their way of forging hierarchies without making the order explicit (and thus protecting themselves from humiliation when those hierarchies are breached), their way of trying always to seem both in-the-know and open-minded and humble: I found Stillman's observations on such social techniques to be spot-on as often as not. And as for absurdities, well, maybe reality just looks more absurd from where I'm sitting. But yeah, the dance feels like a placeholder for a real ending that never happened. A major flaw, I suppose, in the film's attempt to resonate. Maybe the director is a little too much like his characters in the end. Hm...

Thanks, as always, for reading and commenting. Oh, and full confession: I'm a Wodehouse ignoramus.

Feminema said...

Okay, you need to march out and find a Jeeves & Wooster omnibus and sit down for some goofy reading. Or check out the Stephen Fry & Hugh Laurie take on the stories, which are likewise silly and fantastic.

I wish I'd gone to your college -- except for the apparent suicide epidemic taking place on this Seven Oaks campus. My classmates took themselves pretty damn seriously, but there was more pot smoking and goofy giggling. (Secretly, I'm sticking with my insight that this is pure farce.)

JB said...

Perhaps it is my utter lack of higher education that supplies me with my particular perspective on this film/subject/tone. University alone is exotic to me to begin with as I was a nincompoop and barely made it through high school shop class. Come to think of it, maybe I didn't make it through high school shop class... I think I may have flunked.

I will endeavour to seek out your recommended goofy reading.