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Posts Tagged ‘Whit Stillman’

For some reason I’m always surprised when I turn up to the local arthouse and find the screening I want to attend packed out. I suppose this is because part of me still associates the idea of arthouse cinema with minority interest. Now, this may still be the case, and it’s simply that the arthouse management is just very good at maximising their return on a single screening: one day this week, for instance, it’s showing six different films at various times on its two screens. Most of these are only showing once, which will obviously lead to a good turnout for those particular showings. But I still wonder if the multiplexes might not benefit a little from casting their nets a little wider. (One should not complain too much: the coffeeshop has relented on its No Jason Statham policy and is showing one of the great man’s films for the first time since the summer of 2010. But more on that in a couple of days.)

So I arrived quite late and was forced to sit right at the front, and so received the closest thing to the IMAX experience you’re likely to get in suburban Oxford. (Given the rather inadequate rake of the smaller screen at the Phoenix this does have things to commend it.) The film which I saw at such close quarters was Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress. Formerly a critical darling after films like Barcelona and Metropolitan, Whitman has spent thirteen years making this film. Well, probably more like a few months actually making, after over a decade finding-the-financing. Is it a surprise that this particular film struggled to find funding? Well…

This is a comedy set on an American university campus, and like most films with this kind of setting it is concerned with the lives of students who spend lots of time in various bars, restaurants and bedrooms but apparently hardly any studying. It is somewhat distinctive, however, in that the bars, restaurants and bedrooms in question exist in a world which has only a nodding acquaintance with the one in which we live.

Upon transferring to Seven Oaks University, Lily (Analeigh Tipton) finds herself adopted by a clique of fellow students, led by Violet (Greta Gerwig). Violet and the others are not simply concerned with the sort of empty hedonism so much of university life revolves around. They have resolved to do good works and bring about the betterment of their fellow students. If you think this sounds wacky and unrealistic, you ain’t seen nothing yet: the kind of good works they are engaged in include helping suicidal and depressed students by giving them free doughnuts, going out with plain-looking and generally useless men as a sort of charitable venture, and attempting to launch their own dance craze.

This is mostly going on in the background of the story of the various romantic and emotional travails which beset Violet, Lily and the others. Pertinent features of these include fictitious careers in Strategic Development, the peculiar sexual practices of heretical mediaeval cults, oddly-scented soap, and some really atrocious spelling.

If, by this point, you find yourself thinking ‘Good God, this sounds like the most whimsical movie ever made!’, you may not be that far from the truth. However, Damsels in Distress produced a rather unusual response in me: after seeing a film I am generally very secure in my opinion, often to the point of blinkeredness. I can’t honestly understand why anyone seeing Quatermass and the Pit wouldn’t love it as much as I do, or at least appreciate its obvious virtues, just as I honestly can’t get into the same headspace as someone who didn’t consider Bruce Almighty a horrendous waste of time, money, and talent.

Now, I enjoyed Damsels in Distress rather a lot: it looks very nice, skips along perkily and doesn’t outstay its welcome, and it’s engagingly played by the young cast. Greta Gerwig in particular gives a terrifically well-rounded performance with obvious star quality, and I look forward to seeing more from her in future. There are some extremely sharp and funny lines in Stillman’s script and I laughed a lot. Of course, this doesn’t change the fact that the film bears virtually no resemblance to reality. The young women speak in such an affectedly mannered way and behave so improbably, and the young men are so ludicrously incompetent (one of them has managed to get to university without knowing the names of colours) that it’s impossible to take any of it remotely seriously. This is so obviously the case that it’s clearly a choice on Whitman’s part – the whole film has a deeply ironic sensibility.

On the other hand, Damsels in Distress is so obviously and completely detached from the real world that I can totally understand the objections I recently heard from someone who’d seen it (for free, no less) and come to the conclusion that it was one of the most intensely irritating films he’d ever seen. It is so mannered, so knowing, and so relentlessly quirky that I suspect it could rub anyone up the wrong way if they didn’t come to it in the right frame of mind. In short, there’s a strong case to be made that no matter what its virtues, Damsels in Distress is also colossally smug and annoying.

I don’t really know. I think that, either way, Damsels in Distress is attempting to walk an incredibly thin tightrope in its attempts to be intelligent and emotionally involving and yet at the same time exaggeratedly frothy and ironic. To what extent it succeeds is, I think, up to the individual viewer to decide. Certainly I don’t think it has anything of very great import to say about the university experience or relationships in the real world, except in the broadest and most epigrammatic terms. But as a slightly silly piece of entertainment, and something refreshingly different from anything I’ve seen in years, I thought Damsels in Distress hit the spot very agreeably.

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