Aside from the lack of a French setting and the lack of anyone speaking French (though there is a lone French character here), Whit Stillman's Damsels in Distress may very well be the Frenchest movie out there that doesn't have, well, that doesn't have a French setting nor anyone speaking French. In other words, Damsels in Distress plays out, both narratively and cinematically, with a much more French aesthetic than an American one. This is neither a compliment nor is it an insult, it is just an educated opinion from this particular film critic.
What this new film is for sure, though of course this is mere opinion as well, is pure, unadulterated fun. But it is a kind of fun with that aforementioned French aesthetic, which by definition shies away from any Americanized moviemaking traits such as over-explanation and typical three act story arcs, and therefore may very well be a welcome boon to we of the more cinepiliac bent, but will be, and has been from my perspective, the kind of so-called snooty art film from which the average multiplex moviegoer, and even many who call themselves indie film lovers, will run away from in either a fit of boredom at being subjected to something that is not so easily palatable and therefore not so easily understood for art's sake or one of indignation over their refusal to admit the damn thing went right over their respective heads. In other words, Damsels in Distress is just the kind of film that this critic can hunker down and get all kinds of cozy with. In other other words, it is a damn fine, damn witty and damn downright hilarious motion picture - no matter what anyone else may counter.
I keep harping on the reactions of the so-called huddled masses because as a person who not only writes about cinema for a living, but also runs an art house cinema with his lovely wife, I have seen first hand the droves of disgruntled filmgoers exiting the theatres with complaints of boredom and confusion over this very same film. Whether they just do not get what is going on - the film is set in a rather straight-forward linear manner and should not be seen as confusing in any way - or they are just used to a less free-form style of moviemaking and inevitably become disinterested with Stillman's choices as a writer and director, not to mention his rather keen seventies-esque cinematography choices, I do not dare speculate. But then I am not really here to take cheap jabs at those with more middle-of-the-road tastes than I or my film snob ilk (though, whether I like it or not, it is part of my rather snarky nature), so perhaps we should just end this line of questioning right now and move on to exactly what it was about this film that I enjoyed so much while others did not.
The smartness of the dialogue and the sly way Stillman manipulates us into changing allegiances several times throughout the film, are a big part of what this film does so so right. Stillman, who has not made a film since 1998's acerbic look at the waning days of Studio 54, The Last Days of Disco, is the kind of filmmaker who would never pander to his audience - who would never dumb down. Stillman's writing is pitch perfect in its wry and witty stylings and the way these words are put forth by the director's stable of peripherally known actresses is nothing shy of narrative brilliance, even if it is written and put forth in the most subtle, crafty manner. The highlight of these aforementioned relative unknowns is Greta Gerwig. Ms. Gerwig first gained cinephiliac prominence with the little-known but quite fascinating mumblecore film Hannah Takes the Stairs, before moving on to being Russell Brand's dream girl in the quite horrendous Arthur remake. Gerwig is an actress who should be more well known than she is, especially after seeing her crazy-eyed sweetheart Violet in this film, and hopefully she will be as she has a Woody Allen film on this coming fall's horizon.
But it is more than mere words and acting that make this quite, unassuming film all that and a bag of chips. Stillman's ability to blend a quick-witted, intellectuality (some would say, and some have said pretentious) with a unique charm that can only be called highfalutin' kitsch, makes for the most intriguing of films. Sort of playing out as Heathers all grown-up - or at least slightly more grown-up - Damsels tells the story of a group of too-cool-for-school types who run a college suicide prevention center, and the random boys (listed as "Their Distress" in the credits) who either titillate or repulse their individual and oft-times ridiculously precocious sensibilities. Stillman incorporates a real sense of old timey storytelling into his modern day march of mental problems, and thanks to Violet and her gal pal's idea of depression therapy through dance, a few fun dance numbers to boot scoot boogie to as well. Why more moviegoers are not catching onto this film we may never know (though some rather snobbish reasons snarkily flit in and out of mind) but it is a shame that this film will be left wallowing in inevitable obscurity (outside of we freaky film folk) just because it is too smart or too witty or two "French" or too whatever. But then, what a way to go.