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Föreningen Film i Malmö presents
DAMSELS IN DISTRESS
“Violet Wister, the would-be campus reformer played by Greta Gerwig in Whit Stillman’s weird, wacky and mostly wonderful college comedy Damsels in Distress arguably doesn’t make much of a heroine. She’s a veritable font of wisdom, which would be great except that nearly all of it is either factually wrong or extremely dubious. She heads a clique of undergraduate girls who seem alternately cruel and clueless. Her vaunted fashion sense mostly results in a fussy, awkward, ladylike demeanor that’s something like a fifth-grader playing dress-up. But Violet has principles and lives by them, and for Stillman — the chronicler of the Northeastern WASP elite’s youthful eccentricities, who hasn’t released a film since The Last Days of Disco in 1998 — that matters more than anything else.
It’s both a relief and a delight to discover that Stillman — an Oscar nominee for his first script, Metropolitan, way back in 1991 — remains one of the funniest writers in captivity. Why hasn’t he made a movie in so long? Well, it’s a long story, but as in most such cases it seems to boil down to not enough money and too much stupidity. (Lena Dunham, the star and director of Tiny Furniture and creator of the new cable series Girls, apparently played an instrumental role in helping Stillman finally push this one through.) As the downfall-of-homosexuality scene demonstrates, Stillman is sometimes simply too damn smart for his own good. You can’t always tell at whom he’s poking fun, or why, and it becomes unfortunately easy to typecast him as the WASP answer to Woody Allen and conclude that his movies are insufferably irritating documents of privilege. He himself is aware of that possibility the whole time, and bastes his entire worldview in a rueful, ironic-romantic glaze.
Maybe you could argue that this old-fashioned fable about the mating dance between young women and young men, crowded with seemingly retrograde stereotypes and staged inside an elite bubble, offers some wry sideways commentary on what has changed in gender relations (and what has not). But I wouldn’t oversell that angle. Damsels in Distress is deliberately and purposefully irrelevant; its irrelevance is its strength. It’s zany-in-quotation-marks and also flat-out zany. I laughed until I cried, and you may too (if you don’t find it pointless and teeth-grindingly irritating). Either way, Whit Stillman is back at last, bringing his peculiar brand of counterprogramming refreshment to our jaded age.
(Andrew O’Hehir for Salon)