Whit Stillman’s latest film, Damsels in Distress, is one of the strangest films I’ve seen at the Watershed for a little while (which is saying something!). It’s not that it’s strange in it’s subject matter – in one sense it’s just a college comedy – but it’s strange in the sense that it largely ignores the established syntax of modern Hollywood cinema in a way that makes it seem naive, trite even, so that you spend at least the first half hour wondering whether you are watching a clever piece of deconstructive self-awareness or just a really terrible film.
The main protagonist, Violet, is played by Greta Gerwig, who cut her acting teeth as part of the mumblecore movement in films such as Hannah Takes The Stairs (which I liked a lot) and Yeast (which is almost unbearably horrible) before getting a break into Hollywood alongside Ben Stiller in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg. Violet is the leader of a small group of girls at Seven Oaks college who are determined to civilise their peers (largely stupid, sometimes suicidal and often with poor standards of personal hygiene) through a combination of donuts, cliches, soap, mis-credited quotes and the creation of a new dance craze.
Joining Gerwig, who somehow makes Violet’s ridiculousness believable, is an excellent cast of familiar faces from US TV trying to make the transition to Hollywood – Jermaine Crawford (Dukie in The Wire), Zach Woods (Gabe in the American version of The Office), Aubrey Plaza (Parks and Recreation) and Analeigh Tipton who came third in one series of America’s Next Top Model but more recently was pretty good as a teenager with a crush on Steve Carell in Crazy, Stupid, Love.
The dialogue in this film runs the full range from sharply funny to unsettlingly inane and scenes can end without warning or conclusion. The laughter from the audience ran a similar range from genuine amusement at a clever line or the comic ridiculousness of one frat boy who never learnt the names of colours through to the awkward chuckle of “what the hell are we watching?”. One audience member seemed to let out an exasperated sigh at the end of each scene, as though resetting her expectations in the hope that the next scene might be a bit more normal!
In it’s aesthetic and the way that it sets itself apart from modern cinema (in fact, at times the syntax is reminiscent of the simpler end of 50s cinema), Wes Anderson is the obvious comparison. It is a pretty film too in parts – from the Greek-inspired architecture of the leafy college campus to Gerwig’s wardrobe full of tea-dresses. If you can imagine what it might look like if Wes Anderson were to try to make a combination of Old School and Clueless, I think that’s somewhere close to what Damsels in Distress is like. If that sounds like your kind of thing then go for it but I think many will find this film to be just too far out there to be enjoyable.