With the issue of suicide never shied away from, Whit Stillman’s Damsels In Distress is set against a backdrop of pain and suffering that is masked by whimsy and social judgment to produce a film that never dwells for longer than it needs to.
With the opening credits reminiscent of a Woody Allen flick alongside the inclusion of chapters and footnotes to the closing credits, the director’s presence is often felt, especially in how suicide is never treated as taboo but as an everyday part of human life. Though the overriding light-hearted humour ensures we are constantly aware this is a comedy first and drama second, Damsels In Distress utilises its comedy and throwaway charm (the tap dancing goes hand in hand with Fred Astaire’s 1937 musical, A Damsel In Distress) as a coping device for the personal – albeit rather frustratingly hidden – dramas at its core.
The introduction to the Seven Oaks clique is not the most comfortable of meetings and it takes a lot of perseverance to be rewarded with any knowledge of the characters’ inner feelings as opposed to their very loud opinions. Though there’s soul searching towards the end, for the most part the girls simply appear as a multi-headed and often very grating Greek chorus. Pedantic to the point of sheer frustration during the first half, the girls are deluded as to the state of their own intelligence, believing that finding a guy beneath them will make them feel better about themselves. And while this may prove a great satirical point on College students, it emphasises how their points are, in fact, rather dumb.
The boys that cause a great deal of the damsels’ distress serve as the comic relief, ensuring we are able to come up for air during the often painful quirkiness of the opening half. Though Adam Brody and Hugo Becker are easy on the eye as the objects of desire, it is Ryan Metcalf and Billy Magnussen who are truly excellent as Frank and Thor; frat boys with little to no intelligence. While Thor may struggle to work out all the colours of the rainbow and Frank is all big eyed and floppy haired, chasing pretty (and more intelligent) girls around like a dog chasing its own tail, their apelike antics are a welcome hiatus from the girls’ way of life.
Once the halfway mark is reached and Violet goes AWOL for a while, everything appears to seamlessly fall into place without the audience realising, leaving you completely ensnared by the film’s charm. Assisted by Mark Suozzo’s score – which appears to be a Nintendo game/Christmas movie hybrid – the viewer relaxes more into the film as the girls do into understanding life and appreciating those around them.
After initially finding the group (Megalyn Echikunwoke’s Rose in particular, with her “operator, playboy type” leit motif) insufferable, by the end you will feel ashamed of your original opinion. Rewarded for your diligence and time spent with these odd, pretentious creatures, you’ll find yourself giggling at their sharp asides and completely won over by their bizarre choice of tap dancing therapy.
Though they may irritate as much as they amuse and though Stillman’s film may push the comfort zone of eccentricity at times, by its sugary ending you will be sold – it’s just a shame it couldn’t have been quite so easy from the start.
Commentary with Whit Stillman and cast.
Damsels In Distress: Behind The Scenes.
An evening with Damsels In Distress.
Damsels In Distress Soundtrack.