Damsels in Distress is one strange, overwhelming film. The film is presented as a pseudo-Brechtian drama/satire (scenic title cards and all) and set in a parody of Ivy League schools. Writer/director Whit Stillman pushes the actors to adopt bizarre posh accents and stiff, overly formal mannerisms to sell the insanity of the elitist college system.
Violet, Heather, and Rose bring transfer student Lily into the fold of their unofficial campus activism on her first day. The girls run the Suicide Prevention Center, solving depression and anxiety through the therapeutic art of classic American tap dancing. Violet, however, proves herself to be in a constant tailspin. The girls do whatever they have to in order to keep their fearless, selfless, moral leader’s sanity intact, no matter how crazy the scheme.
Damsels in Distress is best described as affected. It’s off-putting in a deliberate way that takes a good chunk of time to get used to. The stilted speaking patterns and completely random dissection of well-known slang and abbreviations are bizarre to watch. Yet, it becomes clear soon enough that it is an intentional device.
The core group of friends are living in an alternate version of modern times. They dress in 1940s and 50s fashions, view hygiene as the great cure of society’s ills, and believe it is their duty as attractive young women to fix every dumb and grubby man they encounter. With their knowledge of mental health care, I’m surprised there wasn’t a scene where they diagnose another female coed with Hysteria or General Malaise.
The awkward nature of the girls is heavy-handed, but it’s used for a very clear and important point. No matter how strange a person is, she is still a person. She has to learn to fail and grow up in her own way by her own moral standards. If you’re biggest goal in life is to start an international dance craze, who is to tell you that your goal –your true ambition–is a terrible mistake?
Damsels in Distress is a coming of age comedy about a group of friends who don’t really have a sense of humor. Everything is earnest and aimed at perfection. They are not the brightest or the most talented, but they have their convictions. That has to count for something in the world.
The big issues is how well the intentional alienation devices work on you. The film is quiet and even-keeled the whole way through. In one scene, a riot breaks out. Does Stillman put the focus on the action? Of course not. He focuses on the girls commenting on the action before quickly abandoning the whole scene.
Damsels in Distress is never louder than a college lecture hall and never more expressive than a college student after pulling an all-nighter. It is a strange, twee little journey through a semester of college and no great revelations are made. Yet, the dry wit and strange one-liners will linger and haunt your memories. The experience is almost like a time-release pill. The longer you think about it, the better it gets. It’s strange in the moment but great in the memory and in that it succeeds in bringing the college experience to life onscreen.
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