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Jar Jar Binks goes to college: Whit Stillman’s Damsels In Distress (2011) – DVD review

September 3, 2012 by Simon Kinnear in At Home with 0 Comments

Whit Stillman returns – but he’s forgotten to exercise first. I don’t know about the damsels, but I was certainly in distress.

Damsels In Distress 2001 Whit Stillman Greta Gerwig

Damsels In Distress
(Whit Stillman, 2011)

Filmmaking is like a muscle; you have to keep exercising your talent, or it atrophies. That’s my theory, anyway, to explain why Damsels In Distress is such a disaster.  Not since The Phantom Menace has a director returned to the world he created with such faltering steps… and if you think that’s an idle comparison, consider this: Whit Stillman was to literate indie whimsy what George Lucas was to blockbuster sci-fi.  Within minutes of Greta Gerwig and her posse of undergraduate interrupters trying to teach refined manners to boorish frat-boys, it’s clear that we’re in the company of Jar Jar Binks with a college education and a taste for off-kilter fashion.

In theory, Damsels In Distress presents a classic Stillman set-up, full of barbed erudition and the kind of elegant one-liners you wish you’d thought of in real life.  And yet the entire film is a facade, the result of posturing, hypocritical hipsters retreating from their own deficiencies into an antiquated fantasyland of tap dance, pseudonyms and tough love.  Just because the characters are themselves aware of their own delusions doesn’t exempt them from being excruciating company to keep.

Stillman indulges this hollow bohemia to the point where the film seems to exist only as a forlorn lament against a modern world that has moved on from a romanticised past of dating rituals and quirky intellectual entrepreneurism… which probably never really existed except in the mind of Whit Stillman.  This certainly bears zero resemblance to any university campus I’ve been to – and for this film to be made as part of the same generation as, say, The Social Network (a film that manages to match screwball smarts with real-world Ivy League savvy) is to display breathtaking self-indulgence.

Frankly, it’s horrible, somehow made worse by the sporadic occasions when Stillman generates chuckles thanks to his ear for communication breakdown.  It’s frustrating to think that he’s still got it, somewhere – but then The Phantom Menace had its moments, too.  Everything else is a simulacrum of smart, from the whimsical plot twists (a college kid who has never learnt how to differentiate colours – really?) to the maddeningly smug fourth-wall-breaking ending, via a string of horribly affected performances.   its horribly affected performances.  (Megalyn Echikunwoke’s faux-English pronunciation of the world operator – or op-or-ray-tor – is nails-down-a-blackboard painful to hear, although not as insufferable as Gerwig’s sub-Sevigny pretentions.

Damsels In Distress is available on DVD now.

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