A Looking Closer Film Forum is an evolving “conversation” among critics… a “round-table” review of perspectives from critics I regularly consult as I revise my list of viewing priorities.

In this case, I’ve seen the movie, but didn’t emerge with much to say about it. I think I need to see it a second time. Either Damsels has a lot of good things on its mind that never cohere into a satisfying comedy for me, or I just need more time to think about and appreciate its finer points.

These reviews intrigued me. Check back from time to time, as I may add more reviews to the list.

Damsels in Distress

Eric Hynes at Riverfront Times:

Four features in, Whit Stillman’s cinematic sensibility is both plain as day and hard to pin down. In a Stillman film, a lost gentility is regularly romanticized but rarely ever properly defined, let alone reacquired. Rules are fetishized for the implication, if not the realization, of order. And in this, his most plainly satirical film that is also arguably his least cynical, a bunch of aspiring conformists reliably do the most abnormal of things — sniff bars of soap, conjugate the plural of doofus, choreograph the sambola. Dancing breaks out in all of Stillman’s films and usually just because. All the cardigans and brass-buttoned blazers in the world can’t cloak that kind of eccentricity. 

Noel Murray at The AV Club:

… even though I’m not sure I understand what Stillman was going for minute-to-minute, I was swept away by how original Damsels is, and how funny. It’s essentially an‘80s-style campus comedy (complete with cheesy faux-rock soundtrack), in which dopey fraternity boys and prissy girls clash with artsy types, activists and ruffians. The difference is that Stillman appears to be at least superficially on the side of the snobs. He paints the frat boys—who in this movie’s world are “Roman,” not Greek—as dim and helpless, in an overtly broad comic touch that doesn’t always work. And he paints their ladyfriends—led by Greta Gerwig—as staunch idealists, who helm a suicide prevention organization and try to lead their peers by setting good examples. Dig beneath the fast-paced chatter, bright colors and absurdist turns (there’s more than one dance number in the film) and you’ll find that this is still a movie about the way young people try to define themselves, and how they hide their petty hypocrisies behind convoluted modifications to their public identities. But this time, the method matches the meaning, as Stillman creates a thick-lined, screwball universe.

Scott Tobias at The AV Club:

Peel back the 15 layers of irony and I’m not convinced there’s much to Damsels In Distress, but funny is funny, and Stillman allows Gerwig’s daffy charm and blankly inflected line-readings to set the tone. Between the accumulation of droll one-liners and the bright, infectious song-and-dance numbers, the film overcomes its lumpy, episodic pace and a stiltedness that’s not wholly by design.

A.G. Harmon at Good Letters:

In Damsels in Distress, Stillman again features the upper classes, those most maligned by the yawn-inducing “independent” film establishment that applauds its own supposed bravery by shooting ancient fish in an ancient barrel.

When he broke onto the scene in 1990 with Metropolitan, a tribute to debutante after-parties, Stillman won my devotion with characters lamenting the plot of Buñuel’s over-hyped film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: “When I first heard the title,” says Charlie, “I thought: ‘Finally someone’s gonna tell the truth about the bourgeoisie!’ What a disappointment. It would be hard to imagine a less fair or accurate portrait…The truth is, the bourgeoisie does have a lot of charm.”

Of course it does; people are people, even if they do dress better and live in nicer houses than we do. Stillman is the champion of those seldom championed.