Well, that almost hit the spot! Kind of! Even when just talking about the movie with friends after seeing it, I’m finding it a little difficult to be too hard on Damsels In Distress. As a fan of Whit Stillman since a professor showed Metropolitan in a “Wealth and Power” class I took in college, because of course, none of that is the most annoying thing that anyone has ever read, ALL very good, it’s hard not to take his first film since 1998’s Last Days of Disco and enjoy it just because it’s, if nothing else, new and Whit Stillman-y. (To be fair, the wait in-between films obviously hasn’t been that long for me, having only been introduced to them a few years ago when I was in college, like I said.) (I was 11 in 1998.) (SUE ME ABOUT IT, WHY DON’T YOU.) The main characters were just as charmingly self-deceiving and garrulous as we remembered them when they were played by Chris Eigeman and Chloë Sevigny, and Greta Gerwig and Adam Brody (also the rest of them, but mainly Greta Gerwig and Adam Brody) did a good job of stepping into the roles. But the way that Damsels in Distress seems forcefully modernized — the Mean Girls element of goofy humor, for example — along with how difficult it is to get an idea of who these characters really are and the world in which they exist, made the film, overall, disappointing. (Also how there was no Chris Eigeman cameo.) (Where was Chris Eigeman?!)
It seems kind of unfair to judge Damsels in Distress directly against any of Stillman’s other movies. This is a new movie, after all, doy, and it is coming out in a world that is very different than the world that existed in 1998, also doy. Movie youths seem much younger now than they used to, and Whit Stillman is much older. (The point that brings up Gabe’s question: Why is he still making movies about youths?) But what else can we do with a movie that, when it gets stuff right, gets it right in the same way that all those other movies got stuff right? You know? When that is the case and the movie gets something wrong, it’s hard not to say, “Hey, you didn’t do that wrong last time!”
So, with that said, the main problem I had with the characters (all of them, really) is that they weren’t sure of themselves in the way that we’re used to Stillman characters being sure of themselves. We can laugh at the characters in Metropolitan because we see them trying to reason away their tied-to-reality hypocrisies so assuredly and charmingly, which is what makes the satire, well, satirical. We never really found a strong character like that here. While Stillman’s films are always full of characters who don’t exist in reality, Damsels in Distress was full of characters who didn’t even have anything to say about reality. While they are all varying degrees of mentally disturbed, most of the characters’ plights were tossed off in a way that made them too insignificant to be affected by or even remember, honestly. (Like when Rose was revealed to not actually be British.) (We’re never given a chance to care about that, and really, why should we?) The closest we come to a full and worthwhile character is Greta’s Violet, who, once she enters her “tailspin,” seems to be developing into someone you can hang onto, only to have her story cut short after finding a bar of soap that eased her depression.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate the humor in her character’s relationship with the bar of soap, but then the movie ended, and it was like, wait, what? That was it? The bar of soap thing and now we’re done and we’re dancing? Rather than define the character, like it seemed like her depression might, it only made it harder and seemly less worthwhile to try to grasp. And then we’re very quickly left without a firm grasp on any of the characters.
Also: Heather, the “dumb girl” character. Who invited Amanda Seyfried from Mean Girls to be in this Whit Stillman movie and why did they invite her and can someone tell her to please go home? That character was terrible! And made the uneven “goofy but still a Whit Stillman movie” tone so much more uneven! It’s one thing to declare that you drink two glasses of water a night before you go to bed because it’s good for your complexion, to never stop comparing this movie with Metropolitan, but it is another to insist that a man named Xavier’s name starts with a “Z” because Zorro’s name starts with a “Z.” Do your boobs also know when it’s raining? Give me a break!
But to be honest, even though Damsels in Distress doesn’t have nearly as much to say as Metropolitan, or Barcelona, or Last Days of Disco, or the same clarity of tone, it is still very much Whit Stillman. And that was still nice to see. Right?