Director: Whit Stillman
Stars: Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echikunwoke
With the arrival of Greta Gerwig’s celebrated directorial debut Lady Bird on UK shores (after what feels like an eternity of waiting), it felt like the perfect time to reflect on one of her sparkling earlier roles in front of the camera. The most openly beloved (certainly on these pages) is her titular performance as Noah Baumbach’s gregarious New Yorker Frances Ha, but Gerwig’s was a name to be reckoned with before this, brightening a number of mumblecore pictures and even adding some warm charisma to Ti West’s horror masterpiece The House Of The Devil.
But on contemplating the task, Whit Stillman’s collegial comedy Damsels In Distress kept announcing itself as a key movie to consider. The setting is Seven Oaks University. Following a gorgeous opening titles which key us in to Stillman’s offbeat sensibility, we delve straight into the matter at hand as opinionated trio Violet (Gerwig), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) select Lily (Analeigh Tipton) to join their clique. Lily is verily set upon by the pastel-hued trio, and this comedy of assumption sees Violet making her first mistake of many; Lily is not a freshman, but rather she is enrolling at Seven Oaks for her sophomore year. Lily accepts their friendship and within minutes is at home in their shared dorm.
Stillman has a certain style and cadence to his writing that riffs on the merits of screwball comedy, but isn’t wholly beholden to the subgenre. There’s a post-modern lilt to his voice. The writing here is typical of that, and much of the comedy in Damsels In Distress comes from the ways in which his characters think and speak as much as the situations they find themselves in. In that respect Stillman has a similar methodology to the Coen Brothers, whose scripts are notoriously exact with dialogue, right down to when a character might stutter or hesitate in a sentence. Stillman’s work admires the hilarity of human interaction; it’s nuances and foibles. So much mileage is made from Rose’s absurd pronunciation of “operator” alone.
Gerwig’s deadpan delivery and Stillman’s words are a match made in heaven. The rest of the cast is more than up to the task as well, but Gerwig’s Voilet is the ringleader of the clique which forms the film’s focus. If you imagine them as one creature, she serves as the head and voice and the others are content to let this be, at least when we first encounter them. Violet projects such immense confidence in her decisions and opinions as to create security for her friends. Every clique needs a ringleader. The comedy arises from how such confidence can be misplaced. Try as she might, the world will not always bend to Violet’s will.
She invites Lily to join them at “youth outreach”; going to frat parties to select inferior males to ‘improve’. Violet measures her success and superiority through self-awareness, though the great irony of the character is her blind spot for how these tendencies of hers are viewed by others. Gerwig’s comic timing is such a perfect fit for Violet that she resurrected many of her traits (consciously or not) for Noah Baumbach in his underrated 2015 comedy Mistress America.
Between the writing and her performance we are quick to understand that Violet’s projected confidence and arrogance mask significant insecurity. When challenged, Violet becomes quickly defensive, or else diverts the challenge by changing the subject to something about which she can speak with authority again.
Violet prides herself on her selfless persona; not only is there her “outreach” work with the frat boys, but she also spearheads the college’s Suicide Prevention Cener (sic), where depressed people are encouraged to tap dance. Yet when her beau Frank cheats on her, Violent finds herself in a self-defined ‘tailspin’. She realises that she is among those in need of help. Rose’s tales of her OCD tendencies in seventh grade only increase Lily’s concern.
This level of twee absurdity was rife in American indie comedies of the period, proving to be too strong a taste for some stomachs. I must admit I’ve not often had the palette for it. But Damsels In Distress sails through; its affectations so precise and numerous when collected as to build their own robust personality.
Stillman’s is a small, specifically detailed universe, like the inside of a snowglobe. A too-perfect place of generous articulation and refined verbage. If only the real world were so exquisitely written. Stillman asks us to laugh at the possibility of such a place. How absurd it might be.
Adjacent to the girls’ precise dialogue is the exaggerated inanity of the frat-boys that they associate with through “outreach”. One of the film’s greatest scenes of pure comedy occurs when Heather discovers that Thor (Billy Magnussen) and Frank (Ryan Metcalf) don’t even know what colours are. For Thor this exceptional scene is given greater pay-off in the film’s final act.
At the frat party, Violet recycles an obviously well-rehearsed desire to start her own dance craze, and later on in the picture she gets her chance with the “Sambola”. At the film’s climax, Stillman treats us to a musical number so we can see Violet’s creation in all its glory. Such imaginative detailing of a character’s inner life recalls the efforts of one of American cinema’s populists; the equally mannered Wes Anderson. Violet’s dance is akin to, say, Chaz Tenenbaum’s dalmatian mice; an affectation to court our favour. Stillman sees the value in traits such as enthusiasm and imagination. He knows that they reveal more in his characters.
Gerwig trained as a dancer, which has proven beneficial to her performances elsewhere (and we’re back to Frances Ha again). Of course, this background assists her here as well, and the appearance of dance numbers in a film as delightful and delirious as this is entirely fitting. Damsels In Distress is as delicious and frivolous as a cupcake. I’ve used this same turn of phrase to criticise before (when speaking about Wes Anderson, as it happens). It comes down to a matter of taste. Stillman and Gerwig’s accentuated mannerisms are just my quirks-of-choice, I suppose.
Violet’s desire to create her own dance craze expresses her ambition to “enhance and elevate the human experience”. Small films like Damsels In Distress are here to do just that. Greta Gerwig has been doing that for cinema in general for a good decade now. I can’t wait to see Lady Bird.