It's unclear to me whether the way the women in Damsels in Distress behave is meant to be an exaggeration of a certain kind of lady in college, or if my instincts are correct and no one has ever acted this way anywhere, ever. Is Seven Oaks a real school? Do girls sometimes go to keggers dressed for a garden party? I'm from the Midwest and I skipped the college dorm room experience, so, honestly, I don't know. East Coasters are not like us, after all.
There are the damsels. Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke) speaks with a posh British accent and finds everything dreadfully tedious. Heather (Carrie MacLemore) is enthusiastic and dim. They're led by Violet (Greta Gerwig), who walks ahead of the pack, explaining life to the rest of them as though she's reading from a book replete with a lot of big words. The trio picks up willowy transfer student Lily (Analeigh Lipton), and they're off.
The girls are mostly named after flowers. This can't possibly mean anything, but it's consistent with the overall milieu of a film that makes a mockery of human tragedy while simultaneously fully engaging in it. There's a plot, sort of. The damsels run a suicide-prevention center on campus that reforms gloomy students with tap dancing. Is this a real life problem, co-eds offing themselves in epidemic numbers? Add this to the growing list of things I don't know.
When the girls aren't busy having no effect on the number of people hurling themselves off two-story buildings (an uncomfortable but not fatal act), they are worrying about boys. My favorite is Frank (Ryan Metcalf), who is about as dumb as a person can be without being made to wear a helmet. Where did they find this actor? The Academy should have a special award for such special performances.
Whit Stillman is a highly stylized director, in the tradition of Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson. Damsels in Distress is his first film since The Last Days of Disco (1998). In their use of weird jazz and intertitles, Stillman's movies owe a small debt to Woody Allen, and yet they are entirely themselves. They tend to feature intellectuals who are all dressed up in self-awareness, but with nowhere to go. In Metropolitan (1989), the women wear taffeta with poofy shoulders. (The insistent billowing made me feel claustrophobic.) The women of Damsels in Distress are just as menacing in pastels, and unlike me, they know a lot of different ways to tie scarves around their necks. There's a point to all of this, the way privileged women can wield a handbag like an axe, and it's fun to imagine how dated the film will look in 20 years.
With more sophisticated audiences, movies are forced to adapt, and the fourth wall is crumbling, like, whoa. Much of the humor derives from the way it gleefully engages in movie logic shorthand. When the script needs to get rid of a jealous girlfriend, for example, it just has her abruptly turn around and walk in the other direction, never to return. The movie is filled with blunt movements like this, too satisfying to give away here. You're either going to find these moments hilarious, or they will just look like lazy storytelling.
Damsels in Distress is wildly uneven, at times confusing and, above all, so, so strange. These are stellar comedic performances, especially when you consider the task: They're made to make insanely affected language sound like words a human would say. For me, Greta Gerwig as Violet is the main event. She slayed me in last year's Greenberg, and ever since, I can't stop gawking at her face. I don't think I'm supposed to like her or her friends, but in fact, I cared about these girls a lot. I wanted them to be happy. Seriously, how does Gerwig manage to burrow into our hearts and minds clad in so many impossible ascots? Who are these people and why do I care?
Damsels in Distress continues at the Wilma Theatre.