Following a surprise appearance at last year’s BFI London Film Festival and a warm (if slightly muted) reception upon its UK cinematic release, Whit Stillman’s soap-hawking, Sambola-inducing pseudo musical Damsels in Distress (2011) makes its way to DVD this week to the delight of some – and the bewilderment of many. It’s easy to see why this high-brow, Clueless-esque college talkie has confounded the uninitiated, but for a number of Stillman’s most devoted fans, Damsels in Distress is an unbridled delight.
American indie queen Greta Gerwig plays Violet Wister, the ever-so-slightly stuck-up head of a group of female East Coast College students, intent on helping the growing number of depressed and potentially-suicidal fellow pupils on campus. Aiding Violet in her task are Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and new girl Lily (Analeigh Tipton), caught between her French ex-boyfriend Xavier (Hugo Becker) and his latest squeeze. Together, the collegiate clan strive to save their fellow brothers and sisters through a subtle blend of calming soap products and a brand new dance craze – the Sambola.
For those willing to be swept along for the ride, there’s a great deal to relish within Stillman’s Damsels. Gerwig is pitch-perfect as the suffocating do-gooder Violet, so self-absorbed with her own smug worth that she fails to see the damage – rather than assistance – she inflicts upon the lives of others. Her merry band of pristine hangers-on are similarly watchable, particularly Echikunwoke’s Rose, almost guaranteed to raise either a wry smile or an embarrassed cringe each and every time she utters the immortal words, “playboy operator”.
Stillman’s deconstruction of campus life is cutting yet fantastical, with the film itself soaked in a sun-drenched, near-hallucinogenic glow that adds – rather than takes away – to Damsels’ overall impact. As previously mentioned, 1995’s Clueless appears to be a key reference point here, with even the most inconsequential of narrative thrusts given heightened, utmost importance. A subplot involving one ‘jock’s’ inability to recognise colours is enjoyably stretched out to its most melodramatic of conclusions – only in Stillman’s world would such inanity pass as refined film-craft.
Past favour undeniably helps to carry Damsels in Distress through the odd patch of overt ‘out-there-ness’. Yet given the time to permeate an audience’s barriers, Stillman’s college-set cacophony of frat boys, honour students and Cathar-following exes feels somehow far more in tune with middle to upper middle-class US suburban life than any cycle of gross-out teen movies. Ending on a song-and-dance number certainly doesn’t hurt either…