Dancing Out of Distress
Author: Bryony Young Keywords:
Identity, care, humility, integrity, therapy, mental health, suicide
Film title: Damsels in Distress
Director: Whit Stillman
Screenplay: Whit Stillman
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Adam Brody, Analeigh Tipton, Hugo Becker
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics (USA); Columbia Pictures (UK)
Cinema Release Date: 6 April 2012 (USA); 27 April 2012 (UK)
Certificate: PG-13 (USA); 12A (UK) Contains moderate sex references, language and suicide references
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Damsels in Distress follows the story of three young, female college students who befriend a new student, Lilly (Analeigh Tipton), to introduce her into college life at the fictional Seven Oaks College. The plot follows Lilly as she questions and evaluates her new college experiences within her new social circle of queen bee Violet (Greta Gerwig), dumb Heather (Carrie Maclemore), and worldly Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke). This could easily resemble something more mainstream but combined with a musical theatre glow, it creates a witty, innocent, and canny on-campus comedy.
As the title suggests, the film plays on the classic fairy-tale narrative, whereby the prince saves the princess or maiden from death as part of his efforts to overcome evil. This can be found in classic stories like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. The damsel in distress is normally a naïve, innocent and charming character. However, in the context of this film, the ones in need of saving are the male characters. This in turn empowers Violet, Rose, Heather and Lilly in their femininity and authority within their social circles, whilst still keeping a sense of foolishness.
We are quickly introduced to Violet’s philosophy of student life, whereby she will date a guy to help him realise his full potential. She deliberately chooses male social outcasts from the all-male DU (Delta Upsilon) society, who are well known for their body odour issues, lack of social skills, and limited fashion sense. This is the complete opposite from traditional, stereotypical narratives in which the girl aspires to attract the coolest and most hunky guy in the college. However, by deliberating choosing not to follow this approach, the girls actually acquire a level of coolness in the eyes of their peers. However, Violet seems to question what social order is: ‘Do you know what's the major problem in contemporary social life? The tendency to always seek someone cooler than yourself,’ she says.
Violet, Heather and Rose quickly introduce Lilly to their suicide prevention centre, which uses unconventional forms of therapy, including tap-dancing and washing with nice-smelling soap. The male students, many of whom suffer from mental health issues, complain about how the girls treat them, and do not welcome this strategy. The odd combination of mental health issues and the colourful damsels creates a sense of warm naivety which makes this film really stand out from traditional college-based comedies.
The story is based on director Whit Stillman’s personal experience of being humiliated in the past. He explains:
There’s something very funny about people who think they’re in extremities with their lives. And part of the problem, I think, of this sort of teetering danger toward suicidal thoughts in that age group, is an over-dramatization of their situation, a sort of hopelessness, very present – focused, so the salutary affects of the passage of time aren’t being taken into consideration. And also in this over-dramatization, the total lack of humorous perspective.
Stillman has deliberately combined these two themes of mental health and gossipy girls, against the backdrop of academia, to create satire that has been richly entwined into the script. The dialogue is very fast-paced, and the comedy is mixed up with relating everyday objects to bigger questions about life. For example, Lilly relates love to algebra when speaking to love-interest Charlie (Adam Brody):
Lily: There no logic to the algebra of love.
Charlie: The algebra of love? Sounds like the title of some lame book.
Lily: It's a title but the book's not lame at all.
Charlie: Love's algebra? I always thought it was more geometry.
Lily: Okay, the title's not good but the book is.
Charlie: What's it say?
Lily: Well, that while we're all perverse in our preferences, there's actually this logic, or algebra to our perversity. And it has something to do with how the species has evolved.
Charlie: The survival of the species?
Lily: Yes, and whether it will continue to do so.
This style of language is heightened when it comes to the private conversations of Violet, Rose, Heather and Lilly about the newest boyfriend or suicide case. The damsels’ conversations are full of questions about the value of intelligence, identity and relationships. For example, Violet especially questions her own personal integrity when helping others. She is constantly criticised for her ‘good’ deeds by the other three girls and by sleazy journalist Rick. Violet claims that, ‘Our intentions are good; we’re seeking to help people rescue their lives from terrible sadness and failure, which is a worthy goal, don’t you think?’ Lilly responds, ‘Yes, but not exactly a humble one.’
The damsels’ characters develop throughout the film, but, like the rest of the characters, they feel very insecure. Alongside the clash of ideals and beliefs provided by the rest of the characters, Lilly has to choose between Charlie – who turns out to be an eccentric whose real name is Fred – and Xavier (Hugo Becker) the too-charming French exchange student, who is part of a mock French Catholic cult. These boys are both trying to find meaning and purpose in life and Lilly becomes confused and doubts their beliefs, especially Xavier’s. All the characters, but particularly these two boys, are so complex that it leaves viewers confused over the role of each character. Stillman has created these characters to reflect the reality that at college or university you can choose to have any identity that you like and leave your childhood past behind. ‘It is very dangerous, parents letting their children travel: they send them off to the airport and they don’t know what they will be getting back,’ says Violet to Rose. Through Violet’s and Fred’s characters, the film later reveals that it becomes harder over time to be faithful to a fake identity, because it lacks integrity.
So do any of the characters manage to be true to themselves and live out what they believe? Lilly perhaps comes the closest to doing so: she seems kind and fair to everyone, and has real compassion for the students suffering with mental health problems. Lilly simply does what she says and says what she does.
However, Violet identifies herself and the other damsels as Christians, ‘We are all Christians . . . humility should be our watchword.’ In practice, however, Violet’s intentions seem more self-seeking and possessive than true Christian humility. For example, ‘depressed’ Debbie (Aubrey Plaza) challenges Violet about the way she treats her: ‘ Do you have any idea how demoralising it is to be constantly questioned whether you are suicidal or not?’ Violet’s attempts to fix other people’s problems actually draw attention to herself, and she is sometimes met with hostility rather than warmth from the other characters. The girls are - at least initially - very concerned about what their peers think of them, so their good intentions become selfish ambitions.
Tim Keller, minister of a church in New York, makes the great observation that Christian humility is having the freedom to let go of what people think about you. He says ‘ The essence of [Christian] humility is not thinking more of myself or thinking less of myself, it is thinking of myself less.’ Keller explains that true humility is not self-seeking or concerned with the self, but is actually when you let go of your ego and stop connecting your needs and past experiences to every new situation and relationship. By the end of the film, Violet and Fred finally manage to grasp a small part of this idea and, in a nod to the 1937 Fred Astaire film A Damsel in Distress, they tap-dance into the sunset singing George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘Things are Looking Up’.
 Tim Keller, The Freedom of Self-forgetfulness (10Publishing, 2012) p. 31.
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Author: Bryony Young
© Copyright: Bryony Young 2012
Unless stated otherwise, Bible quotations are from the New Living Translation (NLT) copyright © 1996, 2004 by Tyndale Charitable Trust. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers.