Damsels in Distress: A Review

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{image via Hollywood Reporter}

Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress was released on DVD yesterday (Sept. 25th), and as the film only showed in a number of cities, I thought it might be helpful to review it for those who were not able to see the movie in theatres. Damsels in Distress, the first Stillman film since The Last Days of Disco in 1998, appears to be a bit of a departure from his Doomed Bourgeois trilogy, which explored the death of the WASP hierarchy, anti-Americanism abroad, and Society's role in mainstream culture. In this film, Seven Oaks College transfer student Lily meets three girls--Violet, Rose, and Heather--who recruit her to join their self-appointed crusade of reform at the school. Their mission includes assisting the hordes of affable but stupid frat boys into becoming more polished human beings, as well as fighting the growing campus trend towards suicidal tendencies with good hygiene and tap dancing.

Barcelona or Metropolitan this isn't. The Stillman trilogy's heroes--highly literate, self-serious Ivy League-educated 20-something year olds--ponder deep societal concerns, and the characters who don't fit this mold generally tend to be morally suspect, like Disco's devious Charlotte Pingress and Metropolitan's loathsome cad Rick von Sloneker (who boasts that he doesn't take his inherited European aristocratic title seriously).

 In Damsels, however, Stillman turns all this on its head. It is now the serious ones who are the problem. For example, our heroines frequently clash with the school newspaper's head editor, whose primary editorial activity in the paper (The Daily Complainer) is to rail against the fraternities and demand their ejection from the campus. When the girls stick up for the frat guys (on the principle that they are all lunkheads and thus need special assistance, not condemnation), the editor aims his snark at them and condescendingly mocks their volunteer work. This is not to say that the girls are complete fools. On the contrary, they are fairly sensible, intelligent women who are selflessly devoted to their causes. The main thrust of the film, embodied in the girls' crusades and behavior, is that is necessary to restore some sort of social order, but it has to be done without the self-serious conceit that plagues a good portion of the girls' peers.

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{image via Senses of Cinema}

I found the way Stillman played with the theme of whimsical, lighthearted social reform interesting. The girls, with the exception of slightly aloof, jaded Lily, distinguish themselves from their peers with their outfits and manners. While the rest of the campus dresses in the standard collegiate jeans and sweaters, they don neatly pressed pastel frocks and prim cardigans. When confronted by their peers who portray them as silly or stupid, their responses are polite yet amusing in their earnestness. One of the suicide prevention center's regulars complains that "you think I'm going to kill myself and make you look bad," Violet assures her with "I'm worried you'll kill yourself and make yourself look bad." Even the camera focuses on the main characters differently; as my friend Alison, who saw the movie with me, remarked, golden light glows behind them like halos in the outdoor scenes. Their foes (and some movie critics) point out that the girls' dance-based suicide prevention techniques cannot address clinical depression and bipolar disorder--which require licensed therapy and medicine--but the girls do more than their classmate-detractors. They provide a friendly, welcoming atmosphere for their troubled peers and earnestly listen to and comfort them. One classmate, Jimbo, first visits the center to get help for a girl on his hall; as the movie progresses, he too volunteers at the center, and he and some of the "patients" become part of the girls' posse.

Despite the film's silliness--it concludes with a musical dance number à la Old Hollywood--I think it shares more in common with the Bourgeois trilogy than it seems to at first glance. The trick is that Damsels makes the same points as the trilogy, but in a moderate and lighthearted fashion. The trilogy is very concerned with social order; it praises traditional bourgeois values and bemoans the modern hedonistic lack of manners that lead to confusion and discord. In Damsels, the girls seek to bring happiness to the campus with their emphasis on clean bodies and dwellings and teaching the frat boys how to court women. Also, Violet's personal life was less than satisfactory--she'd been unpopular and weird growing up and her parents died--but she made the best of it by changing her name to Violet and creating a new persona for herself. Additionally, dance is depicted in the trilogy as a metaphor for social relations. Metropolitan praises high-WASP debutante balls as a microcosm of well-mannered society, and as Disco's Charlotte famously remarks, "You know the Woodstock generation of the 1960s that were so full of themselves and conceited? None of those people could dance." Damsels is all about dance. In addition to providing tap dance lessons for the depressed, Violet has choreographed a piece she hopes to turn into an international dance craze--the Sambola. Just as Damsels is Trilogy-lite, the Sambola is dance-lite. As you can see in the video, its four steps are just signature moves from other dances, such as the tango promenade, a horizontal cha cha, and dance breaks from both the cha cha and the rhumba. And it is through dance that the center's visitors become friends and achieve happiness.

The Sambola 

(It's quite easy; if Thor can do it, so can you!)

On a side note, the movie also manages to get a few jabs in at higher education, namely the arrogance that seems to accompany it. For example, the newspaper editor and one of Lily's suitors, a grad student obsessed with Catharism, make derogatory comments about the frat guys' unadulterated stupidity. Such insults aren't without their merit; one of the frat boys cannot distinguish between colors. However, this shortcoming is the product of his parents' snobbery. They believed color recognition to be too simplistic to be important to focus on and tried to force him into weightier studies without covering preschool and kindergarten level curriculum. This character, Thor, does actually want to receive an education. The scene in which he finally learns the different colors of the rainbows is adorable. Moreover, it is reminiscent of I Am Charlotte Simmons, which articulated that the earnest pursuit of knowledge is true education.

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{image via Whit Stillman}

In general, this is an adorable, feel good movie. While it doesn't have the same serious tone of previous Stillman films, it has the same charm and quirk. Metropolitan is hands down my favorite Stillman film, but I can't wait to get Damsels in Distress on DVD.

And in case you haven't seen the trailer...