Returning to Austen’s Refined Spoken Word

Damsels in Distress (2011). Directed by Wilt Stillman. With Greta Gerwig, Analeigh Tipton, Adam Brody and Megalyn Echikunwoke.

Without great effort, viewers can sample all of Wilt Stillman’s repertoire.  Only four feature films have become available to audiences in his career.  Not as infrequent as Halley’s Comet, Stillman’s films are coveted and sought to a fervor reminiscent of a J. D. Salinger interview years ago.  Since 1998 with The Last Days of Disco, Stillman had been rumored to be producing and developing a film based on a lost Jane Austen novel.  This idea is not without merit because his films are often described as cinematic Austen.

Logophiles will delight in this film even though the reflection of college life is hardly recognizable.  Preppy attire is a signature of Stillman’s penchant for good grooming.  Three young ladies approach readily the wide-eyed presumed freshman wandering about club tables.  Lily (Analeigh Tipton) explains her not fully naive yet vulnerable status as a sophomore transfer student to Seven Oaks.  Ringleader and indie darling Greta Gerwig as Violet proffers the friendship and lodgings shared by herself, Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), and Heather (Carrie MacLemore).  Violet conveys her male courting philosophy to accept sub-par handsome and simpleminded men in the maneuver to prevent heartache.  Surely, these male sheep won’t be led astray by temptation due to gratefulness to the superior partner compared to themselves.  How the gods laugh at these strategies.

Hapless Frank (Ryan Metcalf) succumbs to a recently single young lady Priss keen on blue-eyed men.  Violet happens upon the duo with her entourage, and how rapidly does she mimic Marianne’s distraught actions from Austen‘s Sense and Sensibility.  The scene contains unrelenting rain, green open fields, and her trampling without destination in the evening.  Her friends and Suicide Prevention Center affiliates search just as Emma vainly scouted for Marianne.  Stillman opts for an alternative resolution.  Whereas noble and generous Colonel Brandon retrieves Marianne, Violet returns to the dorms of her own volition.

Violet’s murky selflessness in running the Suicide Prevention Center employing techniques not found in the manuals is an important mention.  Tap dancing among other forms of dance are encouraged as a conduit to escape their clinical depression.  Faced with her own male triggered despair, Violet is perceived as part of the same group she sought to help.  Sensory displeasure and delight due to smell rescues Violet via a soap bar when she absconds from her inner circle again.

What proves kind is how Stillman connects identity duplicity of Fred/Charlie (Adam Brody) with Violet/Emily (her childhood name was Emily Tweeter) as a romantic pair as opposed to the doe eyed, lithe Lily that entertains numerable male potential suitors.  An edginess to Lily in how she debates with Violet and her sexual experimentation with a graduate student Xavier demonstrate character uniqueness.  While humor abounds intellectually and satirically, the narrative is not strong in anticipation.  It meanders in a way that is apart from finesse; however, this does not detract from the literary attraction of Stillman’s craft.

The final scene brought a sustained smile to its lovely ode to musical theater, and if film or art’s impact can be measured on degree of mood lifts or suppression, Damsels in Distress occupies the positive side of the spectrum.

I hope Stillman dares to undertake another cinematic production sooner rather than later.

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