Sunday, 9 September 2012
FILM REVIEW: DAMSELS IN DISTRESS
(Melbourne and Sydney Only)
I don't know what Whit Stillman was doing during his 14-year hiatus from filmmaking, but I'd hazard a guess that the writer-director may have picked up a copy of Jane Austen's Emma. Either that, or viewed Clueless, Amy Heckerling's 1995 modernisation of the Austen text, for there's more than a little Emma Dashwood/Cher Horowitz in his chief damsel, Violet Wister.
Violet (a wondrous Greta Gerwig) is the leader of the pack of a civic-minded group of college girls, and the heroine of Damsels In Distress, a campus-set comedy so light and loopy you'll find hard to resist even if you're not entirely sure of what's happening.
Just like Emma and Cher, Violet aims to bring happiness to the lives of those around her, in this instance, the populace of Seven Oaks College. But unlike either Austen's or Heckerling's heroines, Violet is no matchmaker: she comes to the rescue once girls' hearts are broken.
Along with plum-voiced Rose (Megalyn Echikinwoke) and ditzy Heather (Carrie MacLemore), Violet operates the campus Suicide Prevention Centre, where depressed undergrads are served coffee and donuts, and encouraged to channel their emotions into dance.
Of all Violet's theories and philosophies (that the members of the campus's Roman Houses can't be called elitist because they're morons and thus pitiable; to her preference for less attractive, less intelligent men making for more ideal romantic partners in the long run), her strongest held belief is that someone who invents a dance craze achieves a greater posterity than most.
Amused, bemused and enthralled by these bon mots as much as we, the audience, is Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a transfer student to Seven Oaks whom Violet and co. take under their wings. Not that she's depressed, far from it. Lily not-so-secretly adores Xavier (Hugo Becker), a Frenchman who belongs to an odd religious order, but has also caught the eye of Charlie (Adam Brody) (dubbed a "playboy operator" by Rose (Echikinwoke gets some comic mileage out of that term),who may not be all (or who) he seems.
The opening credits of Damsels (which sees the traditionally blue Sony Pictures Classics logo go pink) list the men in the film as The Distress, and rightly so. When Violet's not-so intelligent, average-looking beau from the Roman House, Frank (Ryan Metcalfe), breaks her heart, she's sent into a tailspin; going AWOL from campus for a few days before returning to Seven Oaks and her former self, more or less.
The rest of the plot (which description could hardly do justice) involves sweet-scented soap, conundrums with colours, further romantic complications and an inevitable (yet no less delightful) dance number.
Having never seen any of Stillman's previous three films (Metropolitan (1989), Barcelona (1994), The Last Days of Disco (1998)), I can't say if Damsels In Distress is consistent with the writer-director's style. But if it is, I'll certainly be seeking them out.
But I have a feeling Damsels In Distress, which adheres to its own internal logic, exists very much in its own world; one of bright colours, amusing yet articulate speech, and highly likeable characters, though pretentious or doufi they may be. And it's a world I was happy to spend 100 minutes in, and would happily do so again.