DAMSELS IN DISTRESS. Starring Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton. Directed by Whit Stillman. Rated M (Sexual references). 99 minutes.
Whit Stillman has not made many films, three in the 1990s (Metropolitan, Barcelona, Last Days of Disco), the last of which was in 1998. So, after thirteen years, a new film, in the vein of the previous films but set amongst college students. Stillman could be considered something of a cousin to Woody Allen, with his wry look at his characters, an emphasis on dialogue and a delight in language and play on language.
This means that Stillman’s films are an acquired taste, giving two valid impressions: that there is a serious observer of human nature at work but that the touch is quite light, sometimes witty, sometimes frivolous.
The main focus in on Violet, a character with verve and supreme self-confidence (with some moments of being undermined) played with a performance that demands notice by Greta Gerwig. She looks as if she has everything together, a leader with a clique of like-minded young women, who have no hesitation in criticising men (and the group on display here are very criticisable, quite dumb at times, mentally and socially). Violet makes pronouncements on everything, especially as she runs a suicide prevention club – and intervenes in people’s lives. She also believes in speaking directly and in taking criticism on board, an expert on rationalizing.
Then she experiences a betrayal in love and goes into a tailspin. One way out is her belief in dancing (especially tap-dancing, as a remedy for depression). Despite being mocked, she finally creates a dance which she believes will change world history.
At the beginning of the film, the clique welcome a newcomer, Lily (the other two in the group are Rose and Heather) played by Analeigh Tipton, who has a broader view on life and relationships and offers the audience a way of judging Violet’s attitudes and behaviour.
It’s difficult to judge how far Stillman has taken us by the end of the film (a long way or, rather, some marking time), but, if you can take Violet, then it is a serious and comic reflection on young adults and their questions, quite different from those many raucous and coarse comedies.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out September 24 2012.