I take great pleasure in being able to say that Damsels in Distress, Whit Stillman’s first film in over a decade, is quite the success story. A talented director that we haven’t seen nearly enough of as yet, Stillman is a master of intelligently unpicking the characteristics of the ‘haute-bourgeoisie’, and his latest work shows no decrease in skill.
Centred around a group of ‘damsels’ at Seven Oaks University College, this movie follows their deliciously offbeat exploits in trying to come to the aid of others: specifically, setting up a suicide prevention centre for depressed students and dating lads ‘beneath’ them, to improve their self-confidence and social prowess.
Their ring-leader is Violet, a bizarre, well-meaning, if pretentious and arrogant young girl, whose own insecurities perhaps run far deeper than any of the students she has made it her mission to help; she is one of those infinitely annoying people who really want to make a difference, but seriously don’t have a clue. Followed by the cynical, overtly principled Rose, the beautiful (if chronically gormless) Heather and the nice new girl on the block, Lily – their escapades as ‘saviours’ of the student world are frequently misguided and often hilarious; from dance crazes to scented bars of soap, their methods never fail to amaze.
Stillman can be quite ruthless in his dissection of this society. Of course, it is exaggerated: if this place and society was real, Seven Oaks would probably be the nicest, most middle class college on Earth. But the key to Stillman’s success is how he manages to play down all the wild eccentricities of his characters with ruthless lashings of deadpan humour. If I had any reservations about the movie, I would simply say that Stillman could have gone even further with this towards the end; instead of the barbed but sweet happy ending we receive, perhaps something funnier and more scathing would have pushed the film up a notch, and I might be recommending this as one of the year’s great movies.
That said, however, Damsels in Distress is still very quirky, funny and original entertainment, made even more impressive by its intelligent wit and nostalgic visuals. The dance routines towards the end, half-beautiful and half-pathetic, are a master stroke of cinematic comedy; with any luck, now that Whit Stillman has brought himself out of his 13-year hiatus, we can be expecting a lot more of the same. I look forward to it!
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (May ’12)