Damsels in Distress: Venice Film Review

Damsel in Distress
Venice Film Festival
Highbrow campus-comedy from long-lost Whit Stillman is a flawed but frequently hilarious comeback.

Writer-director Whit Stillman makes a comeback from too long an absence with a university-set romantic comedy starring indie darling Greta Gerwig.

American cinema can ill-afford to lose voices as distinctive and intelligent as Whit Stillman, which makes the writer-director’s return from a 13-year hiatus with the wonderfully off-beat comedy Damsels In Distress a cause for celebration. While this campus lark might not be quite up to the level of his three previous pictures, it’s close enough to justify hopes that 59-year-old Stillman will now realize the tantalizing projects he’s been linked with over recent years.

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The presence of fast-rising star Greta Gerwig and America’s Next Top Model alumna Analeigh Tipton in prominent roles here represents a considerable commercial plus, though Stillman’s erudite dialogue and arch characterizations mean he’ll always be more of a niche favorite than a plausible candidate for mainstream audience crossover. Nevertheless, the current success of Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris suggests the genuinely sophisticated and smart Damsels In Distress could find appreciative audiences, especially in English-speaking countries where the precise calibration of Stillman’s writing can be more fully appreciated. Trailers emphasizing the film’s song-and-dance elements, meanwhile, might profitably lure in the Glee crowd.

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Earlier versions of the script reportedly featured rather more of the musical element, which pops up now and again before a quite elaborate closing number – one that doesn’t count among Damsels In Distress’ more effective sequences. The emphasis is much more on talk, talk, talk, as we observe articulate characters discuss subjects that span – and frequently combine – the highbrow-intellectual, the tangentially daffy and the eyebrow-raising sexual, sometimes within the same sentence.

Much of the most memorable verbiage comes from the mouth of Violent Wister (Gerwig), a socially-active student at a fictional New England university, seldom seen without her admiring gal-pals Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke). Newcomer to the group is transfer-student Lily (Tipton), who’s initially bemused by Violet’s forthright confidence and her approach to life’s philosophical, practical and moral aspects. Then there’s Violet’s unusual sensitivity to smells with a subplot about the near miraculous properties of a certain perfumed soap that’s a particular joy.

Among Violet’s many crusading concerns is the prevention of student suicides, a serious subject whose flip treatment here may strike some as glib. Her unorthodox solution involves counseling, donut dispensing and tap dance lessons. Chirpy Violet herself needs assistance when her frat-boy paramour Frank (Ryan Metcalf) leaves her for another student. Lily, meanwhile, encounters emotional turmoil of her own as she ponders the charms of two potential boyfriends, including Charlie (Adam Brody) a smooth talking charmer who isn’t all that he seems.

From such material, some silly, some over familiar, Stillman proceeds to spin a frothy confection whose flavors are simultaneously tart and sweet. He treads a tricky comic line between exaggeration and caricature, ensuring the film’s many absurdities are generally more delightful than grating. Such people, situations and conversations do, of course, only exist in the mind and the world of Whit Stillman, but over the course of his films – the Oscar-nominated Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998) – he’s created, sustained and explored a slightly off-kilter universe.

Whether this is really a cinematic universe or a literary one, however, is a nagging question: in terms of film-making craft, Stillman was never anyone’s idea of a visual stylist. If anything, he has taken several steps back since 1998. Shot on high-definition video by Doug Emmett, Damsels In Distress has a bland, slightly fuzzy brightness which shows off Ciera Wells’ colorful costumes – Violet and her girls are nothing if not careful about their dress sense – but overall conveys a small-screen vibe. The score by Mark Suozzo and Adam Schlesinger is even more distracting as their incessant perkiness threatens to drown out Stillman’s sparklingly dialogue.

The damsels all get their chance to shine, with Tipton genially appealing as the audience surrogate voice of (relative) common sense. But this is in many ways Gerwig’s show: She’s pitch-perfect here, infuriating and irresistible as a woman genuinely determined to influence world history by inventing a new dance-craze. And while Gerwig continues her steady ascent, relative newcomer Metcalf also emerges as a real find. His Frank is a sweetly dunderheaded oaf, one who’s perhaps a much better match for the refined Violet than she’d ever dare or deign to admit.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Closing Film, Out of Competition)
Production company: Westerly Films
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Ryan Metcalf, Adam Brody
Director/screenwriter: Whit Stillman
Producers: Martin Shafer, Liz Glotzer
Director of photography: Doug Emmett
Production designer: Elizabeth Jones
Costume designer: Ciera Wells
Music: Mark Suozzo, Adam Schlesinger
Editors: Andrew Hafitz
Sales: Sony Pictures Releasing, Los Angeles
No rating, 99 minutes