• Film & TV •
• The Arts •
Damsels in Distress
27 April 2012 (UK)
What do you do when you realise life has no meaning, and there are no answers to any of your truest longings? These are doubts poignantly felt by the privileged young men and women who hang around campuses like the one that Damsels in Distress depicts. None of the characters in Whit Stillman’s film actually voice these questions. This is no Rules of Attraction. But what separates Damsels from Bret Easton Ellis is less than you might think. This world is blotted, tinted, twisted, shifted, and shrunk – not by drugs and sex, but by whimsy.
The standard for whimsy in contemporary cinema was set in 2001 by Amélie (originally Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, and directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet), whose Paris was so stylised it could have passed for a Hollywood lot. The only poverty we encounter is a blind beggar playing Edith Piaf on a gramophone; the only graffiti, a quotation from an unpublished literary manuscript. It’s in Amélie that art-house audiences learned to give up realism and experience the cinematic equivalent of free indirect style: to see the world through a particular mentality. The films of Wes Anderson have charted a whimsical trajectory from 1998’s Rushmore and 2001’s The Royal Tenenbaums through to Moonrise Kingdom, out last weekend.
These films have things in common beyond the use of lavishly quirky sets and an adoring eye for eccentricity. They share a total lack of concern for politics and economics, detaching humanity from its material conditions by assuming that everyone is basically comfortable and safe. What these films are concerned with is reaching an understanding with the self – they are paeans to interior worlds and elaborately constructed identities, full of ritual and obsession. Their protagonists are afflicted with an existential malaise.
Damsels is best read as a parody of all this. Whereas Amélie and Anderson’s films have at their heart lovable lost souls, the only sympathetic character in Damsels is Lily, the ordinary fish-out-of-water in a strange pond indeed. Her new friends, Violet, Heather, and Rose, talk and act in ways that no-one else does. Rose goes into shock when she smells sweaty boys. Violet breaks down when her boyfriend dumps her, but finds redemption in pre-packaged soap. All three run the Suicide Centre, dispensing donuts, tap-dancing lessons, and plenty of haughty advice to their less fortunate classmates.
By seeing through Lily’s eyes rather than Violet’s, we get just enough distance to see the girls’ whimsical self-mythologising for what it is. Which is not so different from the transparent identity-manipulation pulled off by the film’s boys. There’s Fred, who creates a false identity as a businessman to woo Lily, and Xavier, who converts to “the Cathar religion” of medieval France in order to convince her to have “non-procreative” sex with him.
What are we doing when we construct meaningless, whimsical ways of seeing and acting in the world? Damsels in Distress, rather than indulging in that temptation, seems to take it on. All we’re doing is building a labyrinth between ourselves and reality, to defer the real meaninglessness out there. The sad thing is that Lily, Violet, Heather, and Rose all know that there is no response to the world less arbitrary than tap-dancing in a fountain. If Amélie was all too rose-tinted, Damsels’ idiot-savant Frank might have the last word: “If my eyes were really blue … looking out … wouldn’t everything be kinda blue?”
Tom Cutterham is reading for a DPhil in History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.