Worth a read is an interesting take on the morality suggested in the movie, from Christopher S. Morrissey at the Catholic World Report:
Stillman never condescends to any of his characters, even the types whom most people prefer to see as unlikable. Hence my suspicion that what Stillman is up to with Thor is not just broad comedy. Rather, Thor’s inability to distinguish primary colors is symbolic of today’s glaring lack of decorous relations between young men and women, whether in the form of dancing or courtship. I think most critics miss this symbolic dimension (which, in Thor’s instance, would amount to a cultural reclamation of the more quotidian “rainbow” symbolism), even though it is undeniably present (arguably as a deliberate product of Stillman’s literary sensitivities). But they miss it because Stillman steadfastly refuses to engage in conventional moralizing when it comes to his characters. Instead, in the most gentle of ways, Stillman makes his comically positive suggestions about how our culture could aspire to so much more.
It’s not that these young women lack intelligence. Rather, it’s that they misuse their intelligence, torturously overthinking everything to remain confident of their intelligence. They’re funny, but underneath we see the agonizing self-doubt that perpetually tunnels away at the back of their minds.
And it’s also finally unclear what Stillman thinks about his characters, which come from the same stock as those of previous films including Metropolitan (1990) and The Last Days of Disco (1998). As the movie progresses, it almost seems that in the end, he regards these young people as lovable innocents, when we can see they are fundamentally unhappy youth hopefully destined for therapy.
Finally, Natalie Elliott at Oxford American takes a long look at “the best female characters to be found in Whit Stillman’s body of work as we know it”. Her picks, which come with clips, are: Metropolitan’s Audrey Rouget; Barcelona’s Montserrat; The Last Days of Disco’s Alice Kinnon and Charlotte Pingress; and, of course, Damsels’ Violet Wister.
I found myself sitting heavy-lidded after those first 45 minutes when it’s clear that Stillman and his kids are comically oh-so-tastefully dressed up with no place in the plot to go. A lot of marking time is done here. …
I wouldn’t have missed Stillman’s extended set-up to his extended gag. I do think, though, the punch line needed work.
Dialogue extraordinaire Whit Stillman was the Diablo Cody of the ’90s and continues here writing sparkling, arch dialogue that can feel “written” and self-conscious. The filmmaker goes for a retro, affectedly odd vibe with his idiosyncratic characters living inside a heightened reality, a bubble of a campus that isn’t far off from Stepford. It’s fascinatingly ethereal and pretty funny for the first half-hour, until it’s just off-putting and goes a long way.
Depending on your perspective and particular sense of humor, Whit Stillman’s brilliant and dryly funny new film may inspire uproarious laughter, gentle sniggers, bemused smirks, yawns of apathy, or, well, all of the above. For this filmgoer, the responses included everything but apathy, and an awakening sense of rediscovery of one of America’s brightest and least productive directors, this being only Stillman’s fourth feature since he debuted with Metropolitan in 1990. We need much more of this kind of smart, subtle artistry in American film.
Finally, Whit Stillman is interviewed by Haden Guest in the latest issue of Film Comment, although the article isn’t available online unfortunately. I thought I’d pull out a paragraph in which Stillman expands on the idea of “flit lit”, referenced in Damsels, but which I don’t think he’s elaborated on at such length elsewhere:
[Harvard professor Walter Jackson] Bate described a trend in criticism in touch with 18th-century traditions. In Damsels we talk about the dandy tradition, the “flit lit” tradition—that is deprecating college slang for something that is important – this tradition that comes down from Johnson to Laurence Sterne to Jonathan Swift, and then to the Oscar Wilde era and eventually Evelyn Waugh, and separately Jane Austen. But Austen is in a sense a female fictional flowering of Dr. Johnson. And then for us the other huge impact was J.D. Salinger and mostly his short stories, like Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and those in the Franny and Zooey collection. When Salinger wrote about his influences, he evoked this great train of dandy literature going right back. I would just add Salinger to this list. Because it’s the people you hysterically admire that really influence you.
Time to catch up on yet more coverage of Damsels in Distress. I’ve skipped most of the reviews this time around as they’re becoming increasingly brief and repetitive. Most recent reviewers either find the film has good moments but they find it all a bit too fake or wordy, or else they love it, with a caveat or two (often the plot or, as they see it, lack of one).
Let’s take a deep breath and kick off with a review from Felicia Feaster at Charleston City Paper that gives the movie two thumbs down, and a criticism I haven’t seen before:
Slight to the point of banality, Damsels in Distress is a fey stab at screwball that comes off as mind-numbingly precious and dull as dirt. Is this really the movie a 60-year-old preppy who should be playing golf decides to entertain himself with after a 13-year hiatus? Clearly still convinced that his college days were the best years of his life, Stillman traffics in the same stunted, adolescent imagination as the Gidget movies and offers the unpleasant, deeply unflattering sight of a grown man moony over the springtime loveliness of girls less than half his age. It’s like a creepy uncle rubbernecking on the activities of kids.
Well, everyone sees something different I guess. Eric Hynes in the Riverfront Times is more upbeat, and open to the ambiguities in the film:
Four features in, Whit Stillman’s cinematic sensibility is both plain as day and hard to pin down. In a Stillman film, a lost gentility is regularly romanticized but rarely ever properly defined, let alone reacquired. Rules are fetishized for the implication, if not the realization, of order. And in this, his most plainly satirical film that is also arguably his least cynical, a bunch of aspiring conformists reliably do the most abnormal of things – sniff bars of soap, conjugate the plural of doofus, choreograph the sambola. Dancing breaks out in all of Stillman’s films and usually just because. All the cardigans and brass-buttoned blazers in the world can’t cloak that kind of eccentricity.
Stillman’s dialogue is smart and sassy, but poorly delivered by a generation of young actors who think no one else is listening. The film takes too much time to get going, and beneath the snappy funny lines, there is an undertow of darkness that flows around Violet, and even in the finale when she channels Ginger Rogers, we wonder what post-college life holds for her.
That’s a movie I’d like to see.
At Indy Week David Fellerath draws an interesting distinction between being concerned with race and, maybe, class, in a broad sense:
…like [Woody] Allen, [Stillman’s] not above dropping sight gags and one-liners for the sake of a guffaw. But with this film, we see an important difference: Allen’s movie world is notorious for its lack of non-white people. Black characters are conspicuous throughout Damsels in Distress. Stillman’s use of black actors, laudable in itself, also pre-empts a common misreading of his work as a fetishizing of rich Caucasians. Instead, his real concern is with sensibility and taste, of refinement in manner and intellect; the full name of his heroine, Violet Wister, suggests delicacy and nostalgic yearning. We may live in a fallen world, but the return of Whit Stillman to movie theaters gives us cause for hope.
Stephen Cooke at the Chronicle Herald briefly interviews Stillman, who outlines one of the themes that interests him, but which, I fear, is lost on most reviewers:
“Some people have been so incredibly square about the film, like they can’t enjoy the comedy because the subject matter sounds dumb when they read it on the page. To say that someone doesn’t know all the colours when they get to college sounds dumb is irrelevant, because it’s what happens to the subject matter that’s important.
“What’s cool is how the colour theme just grows, and you get into all of these things, like people who are really just unbelievably stupid, but do well because they’re scholarly and dedicated academically.
“Frankly, I ran into that quite a bit, people who are deadly serious about academics, but didn’t have a clue about the world.”
At We Are Movie Geeks, Barbie Snitzer has a lengthy article about Damsels. A self-confessed “snob (not a cynic)”, who manages to come across as relentlessly cynical. She seems confused by the movie, particularly by the lack of cell phones and computers. She paints Stillman as a deluded old man who thinks he has something to say because he was once a successful director. I just don’t know.
Finally, we have a post from Jason Busch at Spend Matters who sees some lessons for the workplace in Stillman’s movies, and particularly the verbose manner in which his characters speak:
[Stillman] can take the seemingly trivial and weave an extremely compelling exchange around it. And he does it, again and again and again, such that the broader plot matters almost less than the individual stories that push it along.
When modern conversations are shrinking into increasingly brief tweets, we should take our time to explain things properly:
I believe good dialogue matters when it comes to everything around us. But increasingly, it’s a rarity. Perhaps we can all do our small part to change that, not being afraid to foster an environment and workspaces where depth and exploration is valued over the dumbing down of ideas, not for the sake of simplicity alone, but because of an intellectually laziness that feels more and more common in an age of information and analysis where we consume more than ever but rarely take the time to digest at the level we should – or argue back with the right zinger just for the sake of putting our colleagues into an intellectual pickle from which they must untangle to prove their worth (and the worth of their ideas).
As Damsels in Distress spreads across the USA (in 57 theaters last weekend), and opens in other countries, more and more places are reviewing the movie. Many of these reviews are brief, so we’ll concentrate on the others which, this week, all seem to be pretty positive…
Throughout, Stillman’s satire is softer [than in his previous films], and the overall tone is much gentler than one would expect. It also, at times, strays almost too closely to – whisper it – kookiness. Whereas before his characters could be unwittingly twattish, this time around his damsels and dudes are far too gloriously dumb, or deliriously gormless. It must be said, though, that this lighter tone is rather fetching.
Jeff Heinrich at the Montreal Gazette seems to have problems following non-North American accents but is otherwise upbeat:
It’s a situation rom-com, an action movie for Scrabble players, a musical comedy for fans of Fred Astaire, as the kids spell out their futures, dance and sing and grow up.
At the Kansas City Star, Rene Rodriguez continues the near-universal praise for Greta Gerwig’s performance and is generally pleased about everything else too:
Damsels in Distress is light and frothy by design – it’s an inconsequential bauble – but I laughed out loud in nearly every scene, and there are lines in the movie that still make me chuckle. This is the work of a singular voice in American cinema, except this time, everyone can be in on the jokes.
Canada’s National Post assembles a panel of three to review the film. Like most conversations, it doesn’t actually reach a conclusion, but they all seemed to enjoy it.
At Examiner.com, Brian Zitzelman is also upbeat about this “terrifically entertaining and absurd story”:
Stillman manages to ground them in this un-reality, especially Violet. He gives the story a light touch, kind of a fluffy cupcake of a movie, with Gerwig’s head-nodding lead a genuine center. Her dialogue and mannerisms might be unnatural, but Violet’s motivations and heart are true.
Over in the UK, Philip French in the Observer has what I guess is a review of the film, but in around 1000 words he manages to avoid giving much of a clue as to whether he likes the film, or thinks it any good.
Though never fully focused or explicit, Damsels in Distress seems to be a metaphor for a society that has constantly been in need of authority and responsible leadership, and where since frontier days women have seen it as their duty to set standards and improve rebellious males.
Also in the UK, the Independent’s Jonathan Romney exhibits more of an opinion, and he appears very much pleased by “a film that’s a crazy, exuberant objet, a glimmering bauble fashioned for the sheer delight of it”:
The film is gorgeously shot by Doug Emmett, who puts a summery gleam on the marble frontages, and scored by Mark Suozzo and Adam Schlesinger with echoes of breezily vacant 1950s pop. This is a feelgood film, if you must – but not in any way you’ll recognise. You’ll gape at the sheer improbability of Damsels In Distress, but go with it, and you may find it lifts your soul even as it makes your jaw drop.
And that’s a good place to end this batch of reviews.
Here’s the next batch of Damsels in Distress reviews, although it seems like this bunch’s average score would be lower than in previous postings.
Thomas Hibbs’s (dean of the Honors College at Baylor University) review at National Review Online is a little more thoughtful than most, although much of it consists of (amusing) quotes from the film.
The serious point behind the humor is not of course that we ought to take Violet’s prescriptions as normative. Indeed, as is the case in other Stillman films, the reformers and theorists end up in trouble. Their schemes inevitably run afoul of the complexities of the real world. In the press notes for the film, Stillman comments, “It’s hard not to admire the idealists who, not content with the existent world, seek to invent new ones. But the confidence and mastery these future-architects embody often disguise a fragile persona that’s frail, inadaptive, and, finally, easily shattered.” That’s precisely what happens to Violet in Damsels.
At the San Diego City College’s City Times, Tom Andrew is, let’s say, underwhelmed:
The film tries to be comically absurd as most Bill Murray, Farrelly Brothers and some Cohen Brothers films are, but it doesn’t even come close to these films. … Damsels, should not be seen in the theater. In fact, it shouldn’t be seen at all, unless you are prepared to lose 99 minutes of your life and know you’ll never get those minutes back.
I’m not sure that sentence even makes sense. Hans Morgenstern at Independent Ethos is a little more positive and thoughtful but also, ultimately, less than enthusiastic:
Throughout the film, Lily asks the questions but just floats along with it, accepting Violet’s convoluted misinformation for the sake of the mental stability of those surrounding them. It sets Lily up to make a mistake that later proves degrading to herself after Xavier takes advantage of Lily’s own dumbing-down in the bedroom. This is no way for anyone to find education and grow up, and in the end no one does. There lies the inherent problem of the movie: If conflicts are so easily resolved by humoring ignorance, why should we care about these people? It’s funny for a bit, but becomes grating, tiresome and plain pathetic fast.
At Cine Vue, Patrick Gamble gives the movie 4 out of 5 and, while he has reservations, is broadly upbeat:
Gerwig – already perceived as the unofficial queen of indie filmmaking – is, as to be expected, superb. Fuelled by the type of script any actor would love to have presented to them, she positively revels in the pretentious and arrogant characteristics of Violet, expelling an assured egotistical demeanour that recalls Reese Witherspoon’s performance as Tracy Flick in Alexander Payne’s Election (1999) – only far more complex and endearing.
The plot is fairly inconsequential, as Damsels’ version of undergraduate life is an imaginary utopia. Stillman uses it more as the backdrop for daydreaming young people starting to transition into the reality of adulthood, and he zeroes in on the comic conflicts of imagination colliding with actuality. College becomes that place where who people wish they were gets whittled into an understanding of who they are, and Stillman has the mature restraint not to do it with a serrated cynical blade. He instead mines the comedy of precocious seriousness, and the results are moments of the wonderfully pointless.
The movie is so madcap and mannered, and Gerwig’s performance so perfectly balanced on the edge of mania, that people might read it as a satire. But anybody who’s spent time in the cloistered world of a small, hidebound liberal arts school will recognize it as only a slight exaggeration, even down to the creepy French guy who says he prefers anal sex for religious reasons. Stillman is having a laugh at this bizarro world—where the goody two-shoes are heroes, counterculture activists are conceited scoundrels, and frat boys are the hapless, filthy ditwits stuck in between—but he’s also advocating for an ideal of feminine civilization.
Tom Grater at Impact, the University of Nottingham’s (UK) magazine is utterly perplexed. Indeed, it sounds like he’s been watching a different film to most critics, even those who were ambivalent:
The production is thoroughly and perplexingly amateurish; irrelevant shots of the sky are interspersed amongst numerous oddities: loses of focus, sound problems, an over-reliance on a soft focus filter that only furthers the tweeness of it all.
In fact, I’m struggling to unearth any redeeming features. It never moves at a consistent pace, dropping characters from the limelight and then picking them back up in the blink of an eye. It never really has a point either, tangentially exploring one idea and then jettisoning it for something else. It’s frustrating, pretentious and ultimately difficult to watch. Real horror show.
Not really a Stillman fan, I’m guessing. At The Quad, Vijayta Narang had mixed views:
While it does have its moments of cinematic harmony, the film is driven by snappy dialogue as opposed to visuals. The dialogue is a little too dry at times, but effectively delivered. Stillman can be commended on having created a set of characters that are both caricatures and are all flawed in very believable ways.
Let’s hope the next batch of reviews are more consistently positive.