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Review: Damsels in Distress

The triumph of the squares in this idiosyncratic tale delights Ryan Gilbey.

Damsels in Distress (12A)

dir: Whit Stillman

Back when Wes Anderson was fretting about handing in his homework and the world scoffed at the notion that a film director could go by the name of Quentin, Whit Stillman was the future of US independent cinema. This writer-director made urbane comedies set in an italicised reality where sincere young men and women traded dotty epigrams. Gentle social analysis was Stillman’s stock in trade, preppy Manhattanites and intellectuals his dramatis personae. They struggled with behavioural codes at home in his 1990 debut Metropolitan, abroad in Barcelona (1994) and on the dance floor in The Last Days of Disco (1998).

Fashion has rather forgotten these delicious movies, even if those of us who yearn for an on-form Woody Allen have not. Now, Stillman is back with Damsels in Distress, which is frothier than his 1990s work but every bit as idiosyncratic. The picture brings a dainty touch to potentially heavy material, much like its cheerfully oblivious heroine, Violet Lister (Greta Gerwig), who takes under her wing the new girl, Lily (Analeigh Tipton), at an East Coast college. Violet is one of a trio of female undergraduates who have dedicated their lives to improving the lot of their fellow students. Whether or not the students appreciate such interference is open to debate.

The women’s campaign takes many forms. They oversee the campus’s suicide prevention centre, where free doughnuts await the depressed, courtesy of a local sponsorship deal. They organise dance classes and Violet even optimistically plans to launch her own worldwide dance craze. Most selflessly, she is committed to dating only those men she considers her inferiors, thereby offering them the chance to be hoisted up to her exalted level.

Audiences unfamiliar with Stillman’s films may anticipate a dreadful comeuppance for Violet, or the revelation of some crippling Prozac dependency. Nothing of the sort. Though she would be the campus bitch in any other college comedy, Violet is ingenuous, concerned for the wellbeing of her peers. This is a woman whose epiphany is about the power of scented soap and yet she never slips into the superficial. Most of the characters are harbouring a secret – higher education being as valuable for the regenerative opportunities it presents as anything listed in a prospectus. Violet is an exception. Her surprise at having her own flaws pointed out to her (“Thank you for this chastisement”) is genuine, and delightfully reminiscent of Cher (Alicia Silverstone) in the similarly splendid Clueless.

Gerwig has such a loose, woozy charm that it’s tempting to overlook the skill of her performance. But watch the short scene in which she is required to empathise with a jilted woman who is describing the moment when a man gives you a look of pure love. Violet racks her brains for a comparable memory, only for her search to produce no results. It’s a heavenly moment, finished off with the slightly pitying look she gives the other woman, as though it is she, rather than Violet, whose life is the poorer.

Quirkiness has had a steep falling off in the 14 years since the last Whit Stillman film. (Why else do you think I plumped for “idiosyncratic” at the top of the page?) These days the word means Zooey Deschanel, ingratiating small-print on the sides of smoothie bottles and winsome acoustic musicians serenading strangers on train platforms in dating site commercials. Damsels in Distress has a fair stab at rescuing quirkiness from these minions of evil by suggesting that straights and squares can be rebels and misfits also. The bland sheen of Doug Emmett’s cinematography and the doo-wop bounce of the score (by Mark Suozzo and Adam Schlesinger) provide additional corroboration.

The movie doesn’t always work – some of the scenes seem to be a rewrite or two away from achieving their full potential – but it has an abiding, irresistible air of silliness. The low-rent restaging of ancient Rome would earn a standing ovation from Max Fischer, the am-dram hero of Rushmore. The idea of depressed students jumping from a first-floor balcony because that’s all that is available took me back to the old Woody Allen routine about a suicidal man throwing himself out of his basement window and up on to the pavement outside. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master