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Damsels in Distress

Submitted by MBergeron on April 26, 2012 – 1:54 pmNo Comment

Seeing Damsels in Distress is like meeting up with an old friend. That is if you can remember when Whit Stillman made his, ah, three films in the 90s. For people who’ve actually seen Stillman’s films – Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco – there’s the tendency to lump his films in the category of Manhattan up and comers, or would-be socialites, or educated Americans abroad in the travails of their life but with a literary arc to the narrative.

When you see Damsels in Distress, Stillman’s first film since 1998’s Last Days of Disco, you realize the sharpness of the dialogue, the timing, and the punch at the end of a kiss are there but Manhattan and social conventions have been replaced by singing and dancing with the same witty dialogue set in a world of underclass academia. There’s always been a verbosity to Stillman’s scripts while here he plays with same and adds flashbacks and cinematic compositions and styles that mark the film as individual and yet succinctly a product of its time. Yes, Damsels in Distress is a cool film that speaks at one-hundred-twenty words a minute to a collective audience phased to short attention spans. DID produces the scent of a particularly transformative soap.

A group of femme university students led by Greta Gerwig adopt a younger classmate (Annaleigh Tipton) into their circle. They hang out, talk a lot, and find romance, meaning of life, and aromatherapy although not really in that order. All of the femmes are representative of different psyches. If it’s any indication how much Sony Pictures Classics likes this film consider that the opening SPC logo unwinds with the font over pink as opposed to every other film SPC has ever released that comes with the logo over a blue background.

As fate would have it I was walking around the 6th street area of Austin last October and ran into Stillman, both of us coming back separately from a film festival event. I mentioned that not having then seen Damsels I still thought it was great to have him back; a voice of the 90s, a voice from a fractured decade of indie film resurgence. After talking for several blocks about films, festivals, and traveling by car, and Miami and Marfa, at a random corner some student types asked him to take a picture and as they posed so preciously he readily complied asking them to move within the frame he was composing (on their iPhone).

Damsels in Distress is original enough that you can’t remember when a movie used the usual conventions of polite society (as well as filmmaking) to come up with something so spectacularly new. One thing that DID realizes is that a new dance craze can be the archetype that people will still be talking about in 20, 50, or 100 years; and to prove that point DID does include such phenomena as The Charleston and Disco. Also DID provides a perfect vehicle for some of the most interesting new actresses on the screen, including Gerwig, Tipton, and in a brief turn Aubrey Plaza.

- Michael Bergeron

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