Damsels in Distress
Filibuster: The Movie
Review written by Robert Patrick
In the dewy, helium-filled mind of director Whit Stillman there has always been an unmistakable whimsy. Dialogue is puffed from the mouths of precocious youths; literary artifacts and seemingly inane cultural happenings are tenderized by the lexicon of overly ambitious collegiate students; and twenty-somethings are always on the precipice of artifice or revelation. Stillman lives in a peculiar world, one that is inhabited by exaggerations and snarky exchanges.
The director is the elder statesman of wit, where daft, emotionally frugal members of society are gussied up, adorned with cocktail glasses, and endowed with barbed witticisms that serve as a sort of catwalk for their egotistical ways. This is a world that does exist in some circles, to be sure, but Stillman exonerates regular members of society from his films and inflates his characters with pomp and forked tongues. He is the forefather of directors such as the pastel-driven Wes Anderson and the airy, sardonic Noah Baumbach. Stillman’s films are always noticeable by his character’s mettle or lack thereof. One can only look at directors such as the reverb-heavy, doomsday fixated Gregg Araki or the bent axis of the loopy Hal Hartley to know that all of these directors speak in a very specific, staccato language that may compel some and infuriate others.
In Stillman’s newest film, after a thirteen year hiatus, he returns, to his most comfortable form, in the talky, rubble-minded Damsels in Distress. The film revolves around a group of girls whom run a suicide prevention center on the campus of a school, presumably built by old money, on the east coast. The troupe of women is run by the dough-lipped, partially carbonated Violet (Greta Gerwig), a girl whose primary goal is to champion equality and the ascension of self-awareness – think Thomas Paine in a summer dress. With a sad, all knowing brow and a throaty confidence Violet is the bow of her group’s ship. While her companions mew and slink in imaginary fields of existential wanderlust, Violet seems, at least based on her unflappable disposition and Oxford built tongue, to be a source of magnified vigilance and unbridled energy. She brick lays a plethora of SAT words, stands up for the less privileged, and, in the face of dissension, strengthens the pillars of her sisters in arms.
Damsals in Distress focuses on the plight of Violet as she reassesses her goals in life, after a spat with an ex-beau, but it also, in several unwieldy vignettes, showcases how her friends deal with thorny relationships. The scenes are mostly scatter shot, interminable, and without resolution. Whitman’s scenes do not exist for story but simply as an expose of how to write flowery, overbaked, Olympian-like dialogue. Words do not simply exist in Stillman’s newest opus; they insist on doing somersaults out of each character’s mouth. The frazzled, elastic, curiously snarky dialogue featured so well in Whitman’s better films – Metropolitan; The Last Days of Disco; Barcelona – are here but with less conviction, elegance, satire. They do not erratically burst from an incensed character, but instead spill out, awkwardly, like Cheerios from an improperly opened cereal box. The napalm-tongued Chris Eigerman, whom, in the early nineties, was in perfect control of his serpentine dialogue, is absent here, and in his place, dialing in his lines with the enthusiasm of a slow spinning rotary phone, is the pleasant, albeit less entrancing, Greta Gerwig. The actress handles her dialogue well, and with adequately timing, but the fussy, belligerent recklessness isn’t conveyed in her performance – or perhaps there is just nowhere for her character to go.
The real problem is that Damsels in Distress has no wheels. The film is like the body of a car on box cribs. The breezy, flippant style of Whitman needs forward momentum. A heavy ladling of wit and sarcasm cannot exist on its own without dramatic arcs. Whitman takes a page from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s handbook of disparaged youths, but the execution is simply clunky, crowded, and without meaning. The master of deadpan diatribes needs a GPS to know where he’s going in Damsels. Gerwig shows great growth as an actress, even as she occasionally stumbles, but the film itself is nothing but a filibuster. As the saying goes, “You’re all talk. I’ll believe it when I see something.” In this film, there’s nothing to be seen.