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Eleanor Ringel Cater

‘Damsels in Distress’ — an insular movie filled with blue-blood chatter

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

The Damsel in the most distress during Whit Stillman’s arch new comedy, “Damsels in Distress,” was undoubtedly me.

Precious and self-consciously hyper-verbal, “Damsels” takes place in some time-out-of-mind (read, timeless, I guess?) leafy college known as Seven Oaks (the Seven Sisters meet the Kentucky Oaks?)

Stillman’s love of stilted highbrow language served him well in his earliest movies, “Metropolitan” and Barcelona” — both set among a certain social set who all know what an offhand reference to Gatsby’s shirts mean.

The implication was, they knew little else, so no wonder they married each other and engendered more stiff-upper-lip oddities with a peerless grasp of both the King’s English and the Queen’s family tree.

What set Stillman apart was, 1), he was kind to this endangered species and 2) he understood them.

You don’t get many moviemakers in Hollywood who truly “get” the debutante scene (in all its various locations). A vulgar wedding a la “Goodbye Colombus,” no problem.

So Stillman writes (when he writes; it’s been 14 years since his last movie) as someone who knows the territory. But this time, the blue-blood chatter is nothing more than that: chatter.

Our leader (a la “Clueless”) is Violet (Greta Gerwig), a college junior with an aggressive jaw and a wardrobe of tea-length dresses (look it up). Her, uh, posse is similarly floral sounding bunch named Rose, Heather and Lily.

Their white-gloved mission in life is to help those less fortunate than their near-perfect selves. This could mean running the campus Suicide Prevention Center (the best cure: tap dancing). Or it might translate into dating boys who are impaired in so many ways — socially, intellectually, cuteness-ly — that merely holding their hand is an act of supreme sacrifice.

Boys, of course, no matter how socially handicapped, do come between these girls. Yet all ends well at Violet’s Creation Of A New Dance wing-ding.

“Damsels” feels like it would work a whole lot better if it were set a whole lot earlier. Say, in the same mythic time as “Anything Goes,” with rah-rah straw hats and rah-rah-ier letter sweaters

But lord, how dull and insular the film seems. I realize that, on some level, it’s supposed to be that way (well, insular…). And I applaud Stillman for his skill. But just how long can one trudge through a prissy gloss on Henry James without yelling “Uncle!”

Or maybe “Uncle’s Trust Fund!”

“Damsels in Distress” mostly just made me tired. Tired of bon mots and intricately constructed dialogue and college students who seem to exist in a parallel universe. Stillman still knows the territory. The problem is, do we? Or maybe, do we care?

Eleanor Ringel

Eleanor Ringel, Movie Critic, was the film critic for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for almost 30 years. She was nominated multiple times for a Pulitzer Prize. She won the Best of Cox Critic, IMAGE Film & Video and Women In Film awards. An Atlanta native, she graduated from Westminster and Brown University. She was the critic on WXIA’s Noonday, a member of Entertainment Weekly's Critics Grid and wrote TV Guide’s movie/DVD. She is member of the National Society of Film Critics and currently talks about movies on WMLB and writes the Time Out column for the Atlanta Business Chronicle.



  1. SpaceyG May 8, 2012 10:39 am

    ‘Or maybe “Uncle’s Trust Fund!”’ Yes, eventually, inevitably, the money becomes the far more interesting, er, component.Report

  2. Frank May 16, 2012 11:50 am

    As a Stillman fan, I saw this one and liked it.  It was insular, but not dull to me and I found it very funny.  Having had a glimpse into Stillman World as a prep school student myself, I enjoy his tweaking of these upper class types.  I’ve met folks who were just like this and he really nails these characters and attitudes.Report


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