Judge Patrick Bromley is dancing on the ceiling.
"We're trying to make a difference in people's lives. One way to do that is to stop them from killing themselves."
Like the Terrence Malick of the indie scene, Whit Stillman disappeared from moviemaking after his third film, The Last Days of Disco, was released in 1998. Damsels in Distress, his fourth effort—and first in 14 years—finally arrived in limited release this year. Now, everyone has a chance to catch up with Stillman courtesy of Sony's new Blu-ray.
Facts of the Case
Lily (Analeigh Tipton, Crazy, Stupid Love) is a new student at Seven Oaks University, a liberal arts college on the East coast with a thriving Greek system. There, she meets a group of girls led by Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig, Lola Versus), who has devoted herself to the combined pursuit of preventing suicide and creating a new dance craze. Lily, Violet, and the girls date a series of men (including Adam Brody of The O.C.) and fall into their own personal tailspins. They're damsels in distress.
Back when he was making movies in the 1990s, Whit Stillman was consistently compared to Woody Allen. His films were based in New York, featured smart literate characters fumbling in personal relationships, finding difficulty relating to anyone who wasn't also smart and literate. Damsels in Distress also resembles a Woody Allen movie, but it's more Love and Death or Everyone Says I Love You than Manhattan. This is a comic fantasy, the kind where characters jump off buildings in the background while others break into song and dance. It's a talky Whit Stillman movie that gets constantly interrupted by a sillier, more exaggerated movie.
Stillman's characters almost always have trouble expressing sincere emotion. They're too caught up in their heads, applying some version of reason and logic to affairs of the heart. The female protagonists in Damsels in Distress aren't all that different—they'd almost all rather talk than act—but Stillman finds ways to get their emotions out in other ways. The characters here are so out of touch with what they're feeling and experiencing (one of the clever ways in which the movie satirizes contemporary academia), they act without understanding what they're doing. These are people who don't know how to deal with being swept up, so they jump off of buildings or try to intellectualize their emotions by applying them to dance. The clinically depressed regularly put on tap recitals. Violet, who struggles with her own depression (though she prefers to say she's "in a tailspin"), dreams of starting her own dance craze both because she sees it as helping others and as a way of cementing her own legacy.
Things start off as we expect. Characters speak in a way that's arch and removed. Convinced of their own nobility, without any real understanding of their words or actions, they live in what can only be called the Whit Stillman bubble. Slowly, a kind of absurdity creeps into the movie until, by the end, it's become another thing altogether. People change their entire belief systems on a whim, based on a single comment or faulty memory. Entirely new identities are constructed, and just as easily discarded. The movie doesn't follow traditional rules of reality, but that doesn't mean that it abandons our emotional investment. It's a testament to what Stillman is able to accomplish that one of its best jokes, in which a dumb frat guy admits he can't name any color, eventually gives way to a sincere and joyous moment when that same character sees a rainbow. That's Damsels in Distress, a blend of the ironic and the heartfelt, the silly and the sincere.
Greta Gerwig is such an interesting choice to play Violet, the movie's lead and oddly beating heart. In some ways, it makes sense; Stillman used Chloe Sevigny to great effect in his last movie, The Last Days of Disco, at the time she was the "it" girl of indie cinema. It's a crown that's been passed down to Gerwig, an incredibly engaging screen presence and talented actress I've yet to fully wrap my head around. She's so much herself in every performance, and yet never seems to be repeating herself. In Damsels in Distress, she's far removed from the aimless slacker of Hannah Takes the Stairs or the wounded sweetheart of Greenberg. She strikes the perfect balance between totally sure of her own nonsense and hopelessly lost, managing to earn our sympathy despite being misguided and awful.
Everyone in the cast is good, always projecting intelligence (except the frat guys, who project just the opposite) and striking just the right note of aloof condescension with Stillman's dialogue. No one is exactly what you think at first either, which keeps things from becoming too one note; a criticism leveled against Stillman's previous movies by those who can't be counted among his fans. Adam Brody fares particularly well, having made a career out of talking quickly and living too much in his own head, but he's funny and likable enough to avoid being a complete prick. In fact, there are real bad guys in Damsels in Distress. Even the ones we think we don't like—the ones who are stupid, or who inflict damage on someone (or both)—are allowed to join in the song when all is said and done. Everyone is just finding their way. And dancing. Always dancing.
Sony's Damsels in Distress (Blu-ray) does right by the film's soft, often dreamlike pastel photography. The 1.85:1/1080p high definition image receives a beautiful transfer with bright colors, a good amount of detail, and an overall clean look. Bbecause of the sometimes hazy look of the movie, detail isn't always the best, but it's more a function of the photography than a flawed transfer. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track handles the dialogue competently, though because of the speed and depth of Stillman's writing, subtitles can be helpful. Plus, it balances well with Adam Schlesinger's swirling, swelling score. For a relatively low budget movie, this makes for one technically accomplished Blu-ray.
The bonus features are fairly standard stuff, almost as if someone made a check list of every bonus feature that typically appears on DVD and Blu-ray. However, because so many of them feature this excellent cast, they're well worthwhile. The commentary by Stillman, Gerwig, Brody, and others is a chatty and engaging listen; covering the basic aspects of production and filling in some of what everyone was going for. Your mileage may vary, depending on your feelings towards these folks…and Stillman, for that matter. A 30-minute Q&A features several of the same participants and covers a lot of the same territory, but there's enough new information to justify its inclusion. A standard promotional making-of featurette is also included. We also get thirteen minutes of deleted scenes (just additional character business) and six minutes of bloopers.
Damsels in Distress isn't for everyone. It might not even be for every Whit Stillman fan, since the picture marks a departure in the filmmaker's signature style. The guy who made Metropolitan is still in here, but there's something softer and more whimsical about this approach. It's a slight movie, but a sweet and goofy one too.
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