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Damsels in Distress

May 10, 2012

Damsels in Distress is the new Whit Stillman film starring Greta Gerwig that, unfortunately for Charlottesville readers, will only be showing only one more time at Vinegar Hill Theatre, at 7:00 tonight. Elsewhere in the world (and I have visitors from around the world — just yesterday from Indonesia, Turkey, and Spain! The “World Wide Web” is for real!  — though mostly they come for the pictures) you might still be able to find in theaters.

Stillman made three films in the 90’s, Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco, all set in the 80’s, rooted in his own own experience, and featuring young preppies, WASPS, rising yuppies or, as one character in the first film dubs them, UHB’s (the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie). They are comedies of manners written in highly stylized dialogue but set in recognizably real environments. I overheard someone quote someone else to the effect that Stillman is a cross between Jane Austen and Woody Allen, and that is not a bad characterization.

Damsels is the same type of thing but with a lot less reality and more goofiness. It is about a group of young women at timeless archetypal college where the fraternities comprise the Roman system, not the Greek, because they use the Roman alphabet (that is a typical joke in the film; surprisingly, it works).  They find themselves caught in imbroglios both universal and unnaturally peculiar, and having a lot of  carefully enunciated conversation. Stillman resembles Hal Hartley and Wes Anderson in creating an alternate universe in which very sincere, very articulate (or articulately inarticulate) characters engage in their lives in a very seriously playful way. All three run the risk — and you the viewer must decide for yourself whether the risk pays off or fails — of being truly insufferable. For me, Stillman once again pulls it off, despite upping the ante. I loved this movie. It offers amusement, effervescence, erudition, and a strong affirmation of the human spirit, the power of fragrance, and the world historical significance of dance crazes. Catharism and its sexual and sabbatical practices are also interestingly treated.

The girls in the movie devote themselves to helping their fellow students, particularly the depressed, the unclean, and the stupid. Watching it did make me feel sharper, cleaner, and happier. They did their work.

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