‘Damsels’ screened in Venice and Toronto, and the verdict is…

On Saturday night Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress was the closing movie at the Venice Film Festival, before a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, and as a result we finally have some lengthy reviews. And the word is good.

Damsels in Distress picture

Writing for InContention.com, Guy Lodge could barely stop laughing at the 99 minute film:

The director’s many patient fans will find his skewed wit and dryly affectionate mockery of the East Coast upper classes pleasingly intact, even if the film surrounding these virtues is perhaps a shade broader and more heightened than his three previous features. Newcomers to his work might take a few scenes to adjust to his exactingly verbal, language-besotted humor, which can turn on a single line from sweetly daffy to cuttingly perceptive – if “black whimsy” is a genre, he’s still one of its foremost practitioners – but should be lured in by the frisky pace of the piece, not to mention its luxuriance of finely whittled one-liners.

(I’m picking out the general impressions here, rather than descriptions of the plot, or some of the funny quotes. Click through if you want to read more of that. But I figured some of you, like me, might be keen to read reviewers’ opinions without “spoiling” your knowledge of the film too much.)

In another positive review, Neil Young at the Hollywood Reporter contributes to a common theme, praise for the cast, in particular Greta Gerwig:

The damsels all get their chance to shine, with [Analeigh] 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… And while Gerwig continues her steady ascent, relative newcomer [Ryan] 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.

Leslie Felperin, writing at Variety, is also keen, calling the film “an utter delight”:

Pic is chockfull of daft digressions and sweetly silly subplots, but the ensemble goes at it all with such deadpan rigor, it plays like vintage screwball comedy minus the pratfalls. … Positively boiling with sharp, almost casually dispensed zingers, repeated phrases…, and dialogue that might not be so funny when repeated in isolation but is hilarious in context, Stillman’s screenplay is a thing of beauty.

Some reviewers are hopeful that the young, relatively well-known, cast will attract new and younger fans to Stillman’s films, although Felperin does caution that:

Those inclined to dislike Stillman’s work won’t be persuaded otherwise by Damsels, but fans will be more than satisfied.

It sounds like Lee Marshall, writing at Screen Daily, might be one of those who won’t be persuaded otherwise about what he nevertheless calls an “occasionally hilarious” film:

What holds Damsels In Distress back from being more than a droll curio is the way that its mannerisms and intellectual jokes freeze out any real empathy with its characters. Accompanied by a muzak-style easy listening soundtrack that is presumably meant to be ironic, and wrapped by a couple of musical numbers that are pleasant enough, this fitfully funny Phi Beta Kappa divertissement is not so much Jane Austen meets Judd Apatow as a poor man’s Oscar Wilde meets a preppy, co-ed St Trinian’s.

Robert Bell, on Exclaim.ca shares some criticisms with Marshall, complaining of poor direction and editing:

There’s virtually no progress and really no point to anything that happens beyond the aforementioned cultural didactics. But the dialogue is consistently hilarious, making the awkward pacing and dreadful direction somewhat palatable.

However, James Rocchi reviewing for IndieWire calls Stillman’s scriptwriting and direction “the real star”. He seems to love the film although thinks it’s not without flaws:

It’s a whipsmart and arch screenplay and for viewers willing to play along, it’s a pleasure unraveling the wordplay the actors clearly enjoy delivering (and do so with ease, which we can only imagine was due to extensive rehearsals). But not everything in the film is a success.

Stillman is so invested in portraying life at Seven Oaks through the distinct lenses of Violet and her girls, that the male characters are mostly presented as doufi (and yes, that is Stillman’s preferred). The girls see most men on campus as primitive (and horribly smelly) and thus, outside of Charlie and Francis, the guys are morons.

So there we go. It looks like anyone keen enough on Whit Stillman to read this blog is likely to be relieved, and thoroughly enjoy Damsels in Distress. Whether that’s also true for those who aren’t keen or, more likely, have never seen a Stillman movie, remains to be seen. But given one-liners like this from David Stratton in the Australian, we can be more than hopeful:

Quite simply the funniest and smartest comedy seen in many months.