Sunday, April 22, 2012

Damsels in Distress (and The Deep Blue Sea)

Bluntly satirical and enjoyable, with punches of powerful sincerity, Whit Stillman's "Damsels in Distress" is a committed, considered film. Stillman has taken the medium of the "chick flick" (a la "Mean Girls") and used it to make his style into slightly less (yet still pretty damn) familiar territory. "Damsels" takes a close look at what intellect is and how it affects how people look at each other. The film considers two groups, the Damsels, a group of extremely contemptuous college students who run a Suicide Prevention Center, and "their Distress" (a group of men that ranges from frat boys to pretentious "operators" to hypocrites).

 It pays most attention to Violet (Greta Gerwig), the leader of the Damsels, and Lily (Analeigh Tipton), the transfer whom she and her friends (Megalyn Echikunwoke as Rose and Carrie MacLemore as Heather) take in. Violet is a complicated story, very put-together, who changed her identity (she used to be "Emily Tweeter") and is sticking very rigidly to the new one. She feels a connection to a guy she sees as drastically inferior, Frank (a very chipper Ryan Metcalf), who is accurately described as a "moron." Lily, on the other hand, is relatable, the audience's entry point, seeing Violet in her sweet and charming turns but also calling out her often ridiculous sentiments. She's caught between Xavier (Hugo Becker, the least interesting performer with the least interesting character in the film), an older, manipulative college grad, and Charlie (Adam Brody), who's really Fred (who's pretty full of shit), who identifies himself as a "playboy operator" just as Rose constantly says of him.

Stillman is well-known for his archness; complex, "comedy of manners" style conversations; and dance sequences. This one encompasses all of those things, and it's a pleasure. But, unlike at least "The Last Days of Disco," which was a perfectly humorous but ultimately pretty simple venture, "Damsels in Distress" has some interesting underpinnings. Violet's aspirations towards a universal dance craze and her spreading of salvation via a bar of pungent soap show that the rigidly structured world of jocks and queens and waitresses and highwaymen is much more connected than it seems. These flourishes may just seem like flourishes, but they help "Damsels," rough around the edges but valuable all the same, transcend Stillman's normal trajectory. I was happy after having seen it. B+

On the other end of the spectrum is Terence Davies' 1950's-set "The Deep Blue Sea," a foggy, painstakingly put together tale with much subtext. However, it is of a piece with Stillman's work: it shows the director embracing some of his old traits (bar singing, jumbled chronology, beautiful camera) while trying to make a film in the modern day (by actually trying to tell a story instead of giving vignettes). Incredibly diffuse, it follows the love triangle of Hester Collyer (Rachel Weisz), who's almost committed suicide, her separated but importantly not divorced husband William (Simon Russell Beale), who still loves her, and Hester's lover Freddie (Tom Hiddleston), who flew airplanes in WWII. Adapted from a Terrence Rattigan play, I've heard there are some gay issues involved, and it makes sense to me now thinking back on it. Maybe it's worth a second look. But a week after having seen it I'm left with not that much of an impression, and it seems to be a far less significant work in Davies' ouevre than the remarkable "Distant Voices, Still Lives" (the only other movie I've seen by him). One scene, somewhat disjointed feeling, does work very well: a long tracking shot through a subway station used as a war shelter as everyone there sings what seems to be a traditional tune. But not much else will retain with me. B- 

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