I saw Damsels in Distress on Friday, and I have no idea what to do about it.
The only thing that saved me from spending the entire film not laughing out of confusion was the helpful hint from Roger Ebert’s review, which connected the film’s humor with the humor of P.G. Wodehouse, whom I happened to have read. So thank you, Mr Ebert. The context of the type of humor helped.
Now I must point out, because you, internet, do not know me like my friends do, that I’m not a transformers-watching, art-house-dissing, “I-liked-it-or-didn’t-like-it,” kinda girl. I like to think I’m a little more sophisticated than that. That said, I’m not a film snob – I watch Hollywood blockbusters, animated films, indies, art house flicks, and I appreciate them all. I think about them, I discuss them. Yes, I usually pick the local art house over the closest 20-screen warehouse, because let’s face it, those films are just more worth your time and money. And I don’t walk out of a movie “confused” or saying “that was good” or “I didn’t like that.” I have insights.
But sometimes, I come out of a film utterly incapable of accessing it. It’s not always the fault of the filmmaker. In fact, that kind of film is usually excellent because it’s so completely new. Its newness – to me, at any rate – is what removes it from my reach. I have no comparisons, no references, no citations, even, in my head to help me along. With Damsels, my anchor to any hope of appreciation was Ebert’s sole reference to Wodehousian humor.
Emerging from the film with my companion, foremost in my mind was the issue of identity. Grabbing on to the most English-majory thing to grab on to (I mean, really, I could have talked about the international dance craze; or the sex; or the hot dumb guys and the hot smart chicks), I wanted to talk about “the issue of identity.”
And today, I came to the revelatory insight that Damsels in Distress = DID = Dissociative Identity Disorder = (formerly known as) Multiple Personality Disorder.
In his review, Ebert focuses on the humor, the quirkiness, the unique dialogue. But as the film goes by, what it’s “about” – faux-elite girls “saving” incredulously stupid boys from their stupidity – gives way to what it’s really about, and is only incidental to the main plotline(s): that the women we know as the main characters are actually not even real. They are shells covering women with different names, accents, life stories, thoughts, fears, and motivations. And I mean completely different. Different personality different. And – we never even get to know these real women! It pretends to be ignorable, but it’s supremely not. That the title itself is a veil hiding another meaning entirely points to this being the whole point of the story.
Greta Gerwig plays Violet, whose name is eventually revealed to be Emily Tweeter (like a bird). She was bullied as a child for this name, so sometime, under some circumstance – she changed it. Later in the film a male character recalls a girl from childhood with same name, Emily Tweeter. And then – no. It was a girl by some other name, after all. His memory was a hand reaching out to the audience, a possible resolution for poor Violet and her issues. But then, the hand retracts almost comically. Who on earth would “think” they remember someone called Emily Tweeter but be mistaken?
Charlie, the character played by Adam Brody, is really Fred, pretending to be a slick man of the world who works in “strategic development” to seem cooler.
The British character Rose, played by Megalyn Echikunwoke, is from London—that is, she went to London for six weeks, came back, and is now “from London.” Violet tells her, in a rare transparent moment near the end of the film, that she misses her “nice American friend” in an attempt to make her drop her phony accent. Rose doesn’t give in, almost fearful in her insistence that she is, indeed, from London.
What does all this extreme identity crisis mean? Once again, I have to stress if you haven’t seen the film, that these vital moments really are incidental to the overarching, albeit strange, plot (it includes a musical number, a Cathar boyfriend who insists on having “pure sex” from the “other end,” and a “Suicide (Prevention) Center”).
Suicide (prevention) center
These women (and man) seem to have found a way to not be themselves, and cling to it so hard they’ve almost forgotten their real selves. The result is a strangely surreal existence, which translates to the viewer in the form of a surreal film. Even the cinematography halos the women in gorgeous, other-worldly, glowing sunlight every time we see them outside. It takes a little digging to connect the surrealism with this central problem of identity, but when you find it it’s all the more worth it.
In truth, though at first a little hard to grasp, the film has delightful moments. The International Dance Craze – well, craze – that Violet latches on to is fun, and the final dance number is lovely. The tendency for Rose to go into nasal shock from the smell of the boys is funny. The guys who don’t know the basic colors are simply depressing. But moments like when Violet finds the cure of all maladies – the particular scent of a particular soap from a particular motel on a particular highway where people go to kill themselves – is poignant, sweet, and a hint that there is more to the film than is easy to go away with.
Director – Whit Stillman.