Saturday, 21 April 2012

Donuts and nice dresses: DAMSELS IN DISTRESS

SHOCK TREATMENT: Violet and friends despair at another case of the uncouth.

Whit Stillman’s latest film, Damsels in Distress, comes knowingly close to being just another American college movie, with Stillman introducing it at the Bradford International Film Festival as a “campus comedy”. Straight away we’re introduced to some of the usual college stereotypes: the jock, the barbie, the dufus… (“plural: dufi?”) as newcomer Lily is identified by Violet, Heather and Rose as in desperate need of their help if she is to survive. But it’s not the usual makeover we’ve come to expect since Violet and her group carry a much nobler cause: to reduce the number of on-campus suicides and help everyone realise their full potential – “even if they don’t have much.”

So when the girls aren’t prescribing their peers with free donuts and therapeutic tap-dancing at the on-campus Suicide Prevention Centre (“With suicide, prevention is actually ten tenths the cure…”), they’re braving frat house parties in search of souls in need of saving. Snobby, patronising, and often as clueless as the goofs they set out to help, we fall in love with Violet and her impeccably dressed Mother Theresas for their sincerity. Despite their Stepford Wives poise, they’re human too, and as the messy love triangles ensue Stillman finds heart and depth in the objects of his satire as they outgrow their campus comedy moulds.

Stillman’s script is dappled with some excellent one-liners, and he should be applauded for providing cinema with a new handful of great female comedy roles. In amongst all that superficiality there are good comic performances, but all inevitably end up playing support to Greta Gerwig’s excellent turn as Violet. Emerging from a back catalogue of mumblecore movies with enough integrity to spoof the goofs she made her name playing, Gerwig continues in her rise as cinema’s queen of quirk. Speaking always with a dazed and deadpan casualness, her Violet dispenses her own oddball brand of self-help while looking beautiful in her bows and just a tad unwieldy in her tap shoes. (As a filmmaker to which Stillman has been widely compared, it’ll be interesting to see what Woody Allen has done with Gerwig in To Rome With Love, out later this year – though the trailer looks typically bland.)

In aesthetic, too, Damsels is tooth-rottingly sweet, the girls and boys looking just delightful in their preppy clothes while light dazzles from every well-conditioned lock of hair and perfectly-flossed smile. It’s a lot of fun, but I still want to believe that this was the sugar-coating of a much bitterer pill – I’m not so sure. For all its fizzy satire and oddball characterisation, Damsels sees Stillman reinstate innocence and conservative values at the centre of the college campus flick (although one instance of bum sex does manage to sneak under the radar). This popcorn, I felt, needed a touch more salt.

But no matter. Damsels revels in its own simplification of life, dissolving its love triangles and break-up plots into a sun-drenched musical encore just in time for the (very funny) end credits. Where it fails in breaking any new ground, Damsels’ intoxicating blend of depression-curing soap, new dance crazes, and preppy fashion is enough to infect even the most hardened graduate with its optimism.

Damsels in Distress gets 4 stars (but with extra icing).

Prevention - "ten tenths the cure…"

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