Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Damsels in Distress

Our heroine Violet
Damsels in Distress (U.S., 2011) directed by Whit Stillman, 97 minutes
September 14, 2011, Scotiabank Theatre 4, 9:15am

Oddly, for me, the preppie innocents and debutantes, some might call them twits, of Stillman's Metropolitan (1990) have always charmed me. While my husband R sometimes found the film unwatchable I enjoyed their clumsy forays into romance and adulthood in NYC and could easily watch the film again more than twenty years later.

Stillman has been away from the screen for more than thirteen years. His explanation was vague at the Q&A but it sounded like a combination of writer's block and attempts into more "serious" literary terrain that may, or may not, have been successful.

Here he examines, once again, "privileged American youth" as TIFF's Cameron Bailey describes them - a trio of flowery-named undergrads (Violet, Heather and Rose) at an Ivy league university called Seven Oaks. Think Heathers if the mean girls were a triumvirate of preppie nitwits in pastels.

Violet (Greta Gerwig) is their ostensible leader but why this should be so eludes me - she is odd, prone to silly moral pronouncements and has unusual ideas about how to prevent suicide on campus - a volunteer role that she has cheerfully taken on. Let's not dwell on that too much except to say it involves donuts, free coffee and tap dancing. The trio set their sights on Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a transfer student, as someone who might be suitable to join their group and try an coach her as to the best boys to approach on campus - dumb and unattractive is best.

When Lily gravitates towards Xavier (Hugo Becker), a grad student with a preference for anal sex, the group's hold is not as secure as they imagined and Violet's little world starts to comes apart ... her boyfriend Frank betrays her, Lily wanders out of her grasp and chooses a new boyfriend (Adam Brody) whom Violet covets, and Violet goes on a bit of wander, dazed and alarmed as to how her life has turned out.

Thankfully (!) Violet is saved by tap dancing and the prospect of appearing in the campus musical. The film ends with a series of dance numbers ... for no apparent reason except Stillman likes dancing and his favourite film is The Gay Divorcee (1934). At least this is my theory after hearing him speak at the Q&A.

Here is where Stillman goes off the rails for me: he introduces a number of ugly elements into the safe, pristine little world of the idle rich and young: anal sex, Violet's apparent mental illness, the possibility of suicidal undergrads on campus ... and he tries to treat them humorously. It doesn't work for me - it's jarring and weird and didn't elicit one laugh from me personally although others seemed to enjoy it. Metropolitan was sweet, a little weird and exotic to my world view ... take away the sweet and for me all that is left is the weird.

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