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Review by Barbie Snitzer

Barbie Snitzer has worked in the entertainment industry in the US and France.  The combination of both passions distinguishes her blog Le Movie Snob where she regularly posts on American and French movies. Comments in English and/or French are welcomed.

“Damsels in Distress”- or “How I felt watching this movie”

The word “damsel” connotes a helpless woman, she of the archetypical silent movie scene tied to the railroad tracks helplessly overacting her anguish until she rescued by a handsome hero.  Intentional or not, this evocation of Golden Hollywood is entirely à propos my strong disappointment with this movie:  Hollywood, we are taught by the movies themselves, is the land where dreams are made, and failure just means success is even closer!

Thus does Hollywood function like as a lottery; the majority of its product is dreck , a fact that nutures every soul with the faith and courage to make the trek out west.  They are confident in their abilities to produce superior work; they will embody the prosperity gospel as they concurrently enrich their ego and humanity’s cultural canon.  Talk about a win/win!

Before you think I’m too cynical, remember that I am a snob (not a cynic), one who punctures pretension that we may truly be enriched by movies rather than lower our standards to feed the myth.

Perhaps it was this noble intention that explains director Whit Stillman choice to make and set his films on the East Coast thus avoiding the dehumanizing dues-paying Baywatch PA gigs.  It does however explain why he felt entitled that his voice be heard again after an 18 year absence.

Absence can make the heart grow fonder, and age need not be a liability, but it is incumbent on the voice to justify its absence with growth, or just be fresh and entertaining.   For all those who complain about Woody Allen’s career of late (and I’m not going to defend him for the French) he certainly has tried to say something different with each film, albeit with the same characters (himself and an inappropriately younger love interest), and he doesn’t rest on his laurels.

Stillman’s first film, “Metropolitan” (1989) was original:  a rich chat-fest among privileged white young people from New York.  Cool.  He followed that up with “Barcelona” in 1994 about chatty rich white young people from New York studying in Barcelona. Okay. So I wasn’t interested in seeing “The Last Days of Disco,” but I could guess from the subject that it involved rich white people in New York with maybe less chatter.

I probably would have skipped this one too had I not been invited to a screening, but I was not holding Stillman’s past against him.  But someone should have.  To paraphrase a snarky button I have:  just because you want to say something doesn’t mean it deserves to be heard.

His characters are less than stereotypes; they are speech delivery vessels who take turns giving monologues rather than having dialogues.   Lead actress Greta Gerwig (who I thought was Chloë Sevigny cleaned up until corrected afterwards! ) was masterful in owning Stillman’s longwinded, awkward monologues. She is a superb actress, bravo!   Stillman does have talent for spotting smart non MAWs (Model-Actress-Whatevers).    Outsider Lily is played by Analeigh Tipton, a finalist from America’s Next Top Model who is definitely not a MAW.  Casting men, I’m not so sure.  He seems to cast exclusively dark-haired, square-jawed, Ivy League-ish rogues for all principal male roles.  Even the annoying French actor Hugo Becker has an exquisitely angular jaw.

The “Damsels” attend Seven Oaks, a fictional formally all-girls East Coast college that could be a non-paid nod to the Seven Sisters colleges.  Its campus is a Potemkin Village East Coast College set that was very likely the exact one used in “Ordinary People” in 1981 or “Class” in 1982.  The buildings have no names, just Doric columns and very precisely strewn dead leaves- good job Set Decorator!

The film centers around a not-at-all believable clique of diverse young women, who live Brady-Bunch style in one bedroom, as if.  They spend most of the movie walking around campus in a gaggle, carrying only binders.  Occasionally, they stop to have short encounters with goofy characters, most of whom are “Roman” fraternity members.

The director seems to not want any details that would remind us of our own college lives.  The time and place seem intentionally unspecific.  There are no cell phones or computers, let alone books. There are no consistent cultural clues; maybe this is also intentional but it’s actually confusing. Violet dresses as June Cleaver with no irony whatsoever; her cohorts are latter era generic preppies, and outsider Lily’s attire is contemporary hipster-blah.

I sensed a theme about what a great time of life it is when you’re young at college.  It’s great! No one goes to class, has a computer, or even carries a textbook. College is about happy times.  Like a frosted cupcake that doesn’t need that extra sugar decoration that is always added anyway, there’s a happy song to conclude:  George and Ira Gershwin’s “Things Are Looking Up.”  This wasn’t a musical earlier, but that’s okay! They did this in “Slumdog Millionaire,” and that made a lot of money, so a song at the end means this movie will make a lot of money too.  And get Oscars.
The overall theme is the same as every other movie about college anyone has ever seen:   Love hurts.  I’ll never get over it.  Ok, maybe I will (upon receiving attention from someone else).  Life gets better.  I’ll love my friends forever.

Am I wrong?

Those who are at least a decade out of school and matured normally have learned that as time passes, the Law of Nostalgia kicks in. We tend to remember our college years and entire youth for that matter, through rose-colored glasses, minimizing the adversities.  Our lives and memories evolve and change because they are supposed to.

So, here’s my hypothesis:

A couple of days ago, I decided to watch the much hyped new HBO series Girls.  In the début episode, I recognized, but couldn’t immediately name an actor. OMG!  It was Chris Eigeman, the handsome young star of “Metropolitan.” What happened to him? I was astonished to see how much he’d aged.  It looked like a lot more than twenty-four years.  He’d gained a little weight, but he looked haggard, fatigued and worn down by life. Maybe he didn’t become a superstar, but he’s enjoyed a very consistent long career.  To be fair, I’ve not seen comparable pictures of Stillman, and as a director he is not held to the same standard, but I would suspect life has rocked his foundations as well.

Here is where the Hollywood Lottery mindset comes in:  those who achieve success young are cursed with not only having set an impossible standard for themselves, but with ignorance of how they did it.  If they are unable to maintain their success, they revert to their immature selves, do what the younger self did.

Whit Stillman was a hot young director on top of the world.  Over two decades ago. His subsequent films weren’t completely trashed, but they didn’t overtake or even match his earlier acclaim.  It’s not a fault to want to succeed more than once.  Wanting to be successful and respected, even as a movie director does not define a narcissist. (I know, it does seem like it should, but it doesn’t.)

The delusion occurs when one begins to think past success entitles one to a free pass to future success . If you don’t believe me, watch any “Behind the Music” or almost any “E! True Hollywood Story.”

So, from seeing the change in Chris Eigeman and enduring ninety minutes of bloviating prose, I’m guessing Whit Stillman, upon reaching midlife thinks he has something to say, and because he’s been a successful movie director, someone gave him money so he could say whatever he wanted.
He didn’t say anything.   This aggravates me.

There are so many people who do have something to say who never get the chance, and they won’t because life isn’t fair.  When I see a movie, I want to be challenged, to be entertained, to see something new, even from a director who isn’t.

I repeat:  this is only my hypothesis based on my snobby opinions.

I advise all damsels and their rescuers to avoid enduring the distress of this movie.

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS opens in St. Louis today at Landmark’s Tivoli Theater


  1. Scott Balsam

    May 4, 2012 at 11:39 pm

    Very well written review. It’s funny how this movie generates such a wide range of conclusions. I think it has to do with the author’s voice being so dominant and suffocating. If you like the various points-of-view of Mr. Stillman, the movie’s fine. If you are not in synch with him, there is no visual story, no character development, no plot line to fall back on. In other words, the movie abandons a lot of people from the get-go.

    • Le Movie Snob

      May 10, 2012 at 2:11 am

      Thanks Scott. I’m reassured you agreed that his voice is over-dominant. However, I couldn’t quite discern what exactly his point of view is.

      • Scott Balsam

        May 13, 2012 at 7:41 pm

        His points of view are often hidden in a contrarian attitude, as if he is not sure he wants to put his name to them. The result is insecurity. One POV hidden inside a disposition is frugality (“Motel 4″), another is his religious belief (“She must be Catholic”), another is intellectual snobbery (the Roman versus Greek discussion), and another is retro themes (dancing, and dressing up for class). These POVs could be used to add interest to a movie, but in the case of Whit’s films, the artlessness of the script, shooting and editing expose the POVs as the only elements that communicate. Hence we overdose on a contrarian attitude because there is no movie to move us along to the next phase, and to the conclusion.

        • Barbie

          July 4, 2012 at 7:39 pm

          Yes, this. Alec Baldwin has a GREAT diatribe in Woody Allen’s new movie that attacks exactly this. I’ll mention it in my review, please look for it. Another example, appropriately less highbrow, is Billy Joel’s song “We Didn’t Start The Fire.”

  2. Pingback: Another ‘Damsels in Distress’ roundup | Whit Stillman

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