Thursday, April 26, 2012

Whit Stillman: Damsels in Distress

Carrie MacLemore, Analeigh Tipton, Megalyn Echakunwoke, Greta Gerwig,
 Damsels in Distress, Sony Pictures Classics, 2012.

After more than an aching decade without him, Whit Stillman, one of our country's most brilliant satirists, has returned to the screen with the playful, fascinating Damsels in Distress.  An east coast man whose fixation on WASPy ennui and their snarky ways of communication, exposes his debt to Woody Allen, possibly, Altman aside, the most important of all dialogue-driven directors. But in addition to his lovingly savage experimentations in filmic protags, Stillman skews the whole framework with a self-aware style which drives some up the wall; he's definitely akin to fellow unsung American master Hal Hartley.

With his blistering debut, Metropolitan, in 1990, Stillman was Oscar-nommed for his terse, reflexive dialogue, for original screenplay, respectively. Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, finished off the 90s nicely. He was growing stronger with each project. Then, for some reason, he stopped. I heard word of several interesting projects he had in development, to no avail.

His newest picture, Damsels in Distress, is a joy to behold. taking its spirit and near-perfect stride from 1930s Hollywood screwball comedies, Stillman still controls the voices of his young cast to perfection. In essence an intellectual Clueless, we follow a seemingly sweet freshman through her year as she is taken in by a clique of preppy do-gooders, led by the indefatigable Violet, played by Greta Gerwig with a nuance which is magical. Chloe Sevigny, the lead in his last film, would have played this part a decade ago. Gerwig's inhabitation of this character is wonderful. Insufferable and pretentious, what starts as an exercise in patience yet fascination, soon becomes empathy, as Stillman MAKES us like her through his uncanny use of words and character development.

The rest of the cast (Analeigh Tipton, Adam Brody, Carrie MacLemore, Megalyn Echakunwoke, Hugo Becker)  is excellent, the structure is novelistic and recalls Allen even more. The college campus he creates, Seven Oaks, has a divine surrealism about it which sparks the whole affair. Though the ending didn't quite work for me, this is unquestionably the work of one of our greats, and thus demans to be seen.

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