Damsels In Distress (1.1) – review

Damsels in Distress begins at New Students Orientation, where Violet (Greta Gerwin), Heather and
Rose spot Lily (Analeigh Tipton), a transfer student, and decide to take her under their wings and guide
her through university life at Seven Oaks – a roman-letter East Coast college, with a stench of male
perspiration still persisting from its single-sex days. The three girls constitute the self-designated
college rescue league, and after having rescued Lily from inevitable social failure she’s introduced to
the young women’s mission: To civilize the student body and rescue their fellows from griminess
(improving hygiene being the number one issue). Violet’s personal mission is to start a dance craze that
will chance the course of human history. Violet, Rose and Heather also run the suicide center, where
they offer free donuts and dance classes to anyone who’s clinically depressed. As Violet says, when it
comes to suicide, prevention is ten-tenths the cure.
As a first introduction to their group Lily is taken to the D.U. frat party, for what Violet calls “Youth
Outreach”, the frat house being a place with enough jobs for a lifetime of social work. At the party Lily
is introduced to Frank, Violet’s loser boyfriend, and his uneducated frat-brother Thor. Lily has a crush
of her own, Xavier – a handsome grad student – but is also courted by the slick dandy Charlie (Adam
Brody). As the young women become more entangled with the different boys, entailed distresses start
clouding the horizon.
Whit Stillman says the idea for the film came from stories of a group of girls who had revolutionized
university social life which, even after decades of coed, was still grungy and predominantly maledominated.
Whit Stillman: I never met this group of girls, I don’t know what their names are. But I heard a story,
you know, about what they accomplished. And I did a previous version of the script many years ago,
twelve year ago, it didn’t work out, I didn’t spend much time on it and the only thing that remained
from that was the idea of the group of girls with floral names – Lily, Violet, Heather, Rose. And this
kind of strange university environment that is sort of typical and untypical and the idea of the roman
letter university system and the roman letter fraternity system. Those are the ideas from the earlier
version. Then the idea was to have this sort of dynamic three and then the new girl and you think, you
know, you are are going to identify with her bla, bla, bla, but it turns out she’s not that nice; she’s kind
of the nemesis character – she causes a lot of problems for Violet. So that’s a problem for some people
in the audience because they are so used to having the mean girls and then the nice outsider girl, and
here that’s not really true, but it takes them so long to realize that’s what’s happening that they get
EK: I liked that, it gets very cliché otherwise – I mean all theses college movies are the same.
Whit: Yeah, and also, I’ve had this experience so many times, that someone is in the function of
someone who should be your friend, like everything about them they should be your friend, but it
actually doesn’t work with them. They’re not that good friends… strange…very frustrating people who
seem like they should be there but they aren’t.
Having watched a unjustifiably large number of contemporary college films, I can safely say that
Damsels in Distress is the only one I have seen with a female protagonist that actually has a genuine
personality. It is not that all movies are bluntly sexist, but the fact remain that women are in general
completely personality-deprived in popular culture. Theses girls have lives and a personalities that are
not defined by the boys they date, these young men being instead presented in the opening credits as
“Their Distresses”. Damsels in Distress is a prime example that it is possible to make a comedy about
women and men without being a film about women determined by their men. Violet is not your averageclichéd dictionary definition of “a quirky girl” (for specific example insert name of any character
played by Amanda Bynes) who, when it boils down to it, serves no other purpose than to be the desire
of a popular hot guy who is actually really deep because he writes poetry (i.e. has just enough
familiarity with the English language to be able to rhyme). To finally see girls on screen dating young
men as a means of doing social work rather than to “become complete” is refreshing to say the least.
The scene bellow where Violet briefs Lily on the problems of contemporary social life is a perfect
Take Frank, my friend – he’s not some cool, handsome “studly” macho-guy. No, not at
all – I can’t bear guys like that! Frank’s sort of a sad-sack really, wouldn’t you say?
Rose and Heather nod.
What’s a “sad-sack”?
A loser!
LILY (to Violet)
You like losers?
Very much so. Do you know what’s the major problem in contemporary social life?
The tendency, very widespread, to always seek someone “cooler” that yourself – always
a stretch, often a big stretch. Why not instead find someone who’s frankly inferior?
Someone like Frank.
Yes. It’s more rewarding and in fact quite reassuring.
You mean, someone you can really help? Not just thinking of yourself?
Exactly! That’s it. Precisely! But without the goody-goody implications – our aspiration
is pretty basic: take a guy who hasn’t realized his full potential, or doesn’t have much,
then help him realize it – or find more.
This scene also illustrates of how the very acute and literary dialogue throughout Damsels beautifully
brings out an atmosphere of nonchalance to strangeness and eccentricities, which is depressingly absent
at Trinity. One should think people would have outgrown being pubescently allergic to anything
abnormal by the time they leave secondary school; instead the “alternatives” are a mob of social clones
called “hipsters”. EK: How do you get inspiration when you write your script? Do you listen to how people talk?
WS: The thing is, there are all kinds different ways people can be and in my day there would be people
who’d be very eccentric and speak in a very arid way and be very verbal, and I think that still exists
today there are still people like that. But the thing I find is you have to use what comes out of your
head, you don’t go around with a tape recorder and hear actual conversations. The girl who dumped
me in college, she stayed a friend and she says she gets very upset when people in the articles about
the film says no one talks this way, and she say “no, no we all talked way! Yes we did talk that way!
That’s how we talked!” She made a memorable comment when she saw last days of disco she said “I
used to want you to make a college comedy, but after seeing this one I don’t want you to make one
anymore” because I probably touched on some things that were too personal!
EK: Has she seen Damsels in Distress?
WS: Yeah she likes it.
EK: What do you think about youth culture now, do you think it has declined?
WS: There are some troubling aspects of it, I mean there are some subgroups that get into things that
are very depressing…but I think they’ll also probably get out of those very quickly. But I think there are
certain things that are very likable now and we kind of had a youth cult in making of our film since
nearly everyone was 27 or under and there were a lot of 22-year-olds, 23-year-olds working on the
film. They were very good so we had a very good crew. But I think it is good that there are more
alternatives that people can lash onto and I love making the films in the hopes that they can be a refuge
for some people who want to escape kind of mass youth-culture. I think Damsels in Distress is kind of
a utopian positive version of things in certain ways, but I think that still can exist – there are still
people sort of like this in worlds like this.
EK: Your daughter went to Trinity, how does it seem to be different from when you went to college?
WS: There is the reassuring continuity, I went to college actually in a very modern radical period, I
started there in the last months of the 60s and it was very disoriented since things were so radical and
then they got better as time went on. So I think there’s a lot of overlap and I see, I have one daughter at
university now and one who just graduated, and so I got to see their world and there are many different
subgroups and currents within the student body but their student experience wasn’t much different than
mine. But I naturally gravitated to the most social group and they’re less social. And so, I was much
more into the damsels-in-distress world, I was hyper hyper social.
EK: Social dancing is a very prominent element in Damsels in Distress, did they have a lot of dancing
when you were in college?
WS: Yeah, yeah I mean I think it got better later but it was a time of overlap. There were still things
from that past that continued and hadn’t died yet. At Harvard we had what they called them the
Cambridge boathouse dances. There were various boathouses along the river for the people who did
rowing, that sort of thing, the Harvard boathouse, the Cambridge boathouse; and the Cambridge
boathouse had these dances that everyone would go to and it was very much this kind of scene. but that
was a blast from the past. EK: They have a dancing society at Trinity where they have ballroom dancing.
WS: That’s a thing my youngest daughter mentioned, her friends at Columbia do ballroom dancing.
That wasn’t around in our day. If you came from a certain background you were supposed to have
learned how to dance and so I’m really glad that that’s continued. I hope the sambola will be a national
dance craze.
Swing dancing is seeing a revival, especially in Berlin which hopefully can find its way over to
Dublin’s greater club scene within a few years. Maybe by that time the sambola will have become an
international dance craze.
Damsels in Distress does offer a great utopian university environment, and it is a beautifully detailed
picture of what I wished college to be like. Every aspect of the film – sound, cinematography, script,
costume – blend handsomely together to create the pleasing nostalgic environment. Damsels is also
refreshing in its unhurried pace and subtleness; Whit Stillman manages to accent the characters’
personalities without explicitly having to explain them. Don’t judge the film by its deceptively indie
poster, reminiscent more of Juno or 500 Days of Summer, which does not do Damsels in Distress
justice. I really enjoyed the film and I feel it is a movie that takes being watched several times.
E.K. Norden

Damsels In Distress premiers April 27 at the IFI and Cineworld.


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