In the 15 or so years since Whit Stillman wrote and directed a movie I have either A) grown too old and cynical B) he has lost his knack for writing smart, ironic dialogue or C) he thinks Millennials are too dumb to speak as smart as Gen Xers. His return to the big screen, Damsels in Distress, has its moments but does not feel as sure-footed as his earlier films, like Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994).
The film opens with Violet, Heather and Rose (Greta Gerwig, Carrie MacLemore and Megalyn Echikunwoke) picking out new friend Lily (Analeigh Tipton) from a batch of transfer students to their college, Seven Oaks. Though one might assume this is Stillman’s take on Mean Girls or Heathers, it soon becomes apparent these women only act out of an honest sincerity. The preppy East Coast college where most of the action unfolds seems to exist in some alternate universe where the average IQ of humanity lands a few notches lower than that of the movie’s audience. There is simply no room in these kids’ brains for hidden agendas. Seven Oaks is a privileged school where most students look like something out of a J. Crew or Ralph Lauren ad, yet some are too ignorant to know the colors of the rainbow.
The film has a sense of unfolding in today’s age of Internet social networking and text messages. Early in Damsels in Distress, when the girls take Lily to her first frat party, Violent hears the nineties-era dance song “Another Night” and exclaims, “Ooo, an oldie but a goodie.” She also cherishes a hand-written note from an ex in which he scrawled: “Out for brewskies back in a gif,” misspelling “jiff.” She says no one takes the time to write hand-written notes anymore.*
Still, there is a dark side to Seven Oaks. The school seems to have a high suicide rate among its students. The education department in particular seems notorious for suicide attempts. Thankfully, those majoring in education seem too dumb to realize a leap from the top of a two-story building only leaves them maimed. Enter Violet and her friends who run the Suicide Prevention Center. Their therapy? Tap dancing. The three girls only want to help their peers. They attend frat parties to intervene and keep frat boys happy by talking and dancing with them.
Violet in particular has a passion for dancing, and Gerwig embraces her character with particular delight. Her goal in life is to start a dance craze called the Sambola. After her premiere Sambola event fails for lack of attendance, Violet stays cheery and shrugs it off, saying it’s like the Myth of Sisyphus. Heather notes, “The important thing to remember is that he was mythical.” There are some hilarious moments of this naïveté run amok. Heather’s boyfriend Thor (Billy Magnussen) is in college to finally learn the colors. It turns out he is the product of parents seeking to create an overachiever. Heather explains that his parents had him skip preschool, which means he missed learning the colors. “You think knowing the colors is so important!” he yells in frustration to a fellow brother. It’s truly an over-the-top, hyper dumbing down that seems unreal but skewers the new generation of the so-called entitled because the parents of these kids told them “you can be anything you want to be.”
This is a world far removed from Stillman’s earlier films of privileged, naïve people who at least offered eloquent thoughts on the difficulty of maneuvering through social constructs. Some either rebelled against them or tried to squeeze into them. In Damsels we have only one questioning soul in the form of Lily, who seems to just go with the flow. Early in the film, Lily seems to short-circuit Heather’s brain after Lily explains to her new friends that her ex-boyfriend Xavier (Hugo Becker) spells his name with an X and not a Z. “That’s impossible,” huffs Heather, arguing that the only way it could be spelled is with a Z because of the mark Zorro left in the movies. Lily tries to argue her side, but Violet steps in and humors Heather’s argument by making up the existence of a rival, less popularly known Xorro who left his mark with an X. When that seems to calm Heather, Lily accepts it.
Throughout the film, Lily asks the questions but just floats along with it, accepting Violet’s convoluted misinformation for the sake of the mental stability of those surrounding them. It sets Lily up to make a mistake that later proves degrading to herself after Xavier takes advantage of Lily’s own dumbing-down in the bedroom. This is no way for anyone to find education and grow up, and in the end no one does. There lies the inherent problem of the movie: If conflicts are so easily resolved by humoring ignorance, why should we care about these people? It’s funny for a bit, but becomes grating, tiresome and plain pathetic fast.
Stillman maintains his skills for the witty dialogue that made him an exciting voice in the nineties era of American indie film, but it lacks the robust meatiness of those earlier films. If this is social commentary, the degree to which the friends accommodate ignorance is frightening and superficial. This condescending perspective feels a bit of a cop-out for Stillman. There is no real resolution in the end or lesson learned, much less transcendence (unless you consider a dance number that explains the Sambola transcendental). In fact, Stillman ends the film with a few footnotes refuting some of the falsehoods these characters take to heart. In the world of Damsels, ignorance is bliss and bliss can only be found through the false safety of ignorance.
*Underneath that, the notion that jiff is short for jiffy may just be lost among these characters. Ironically, the word’s origin is listed as unknown, according to Miriam Webster’s dictionary. Maybe Stillman is skewering the ignorance of society in general?
Damsels In Distress is rated PG-13 and runs 99 minutes. Though it has already opened in select theaters in the US, the film now finally opens in select South Florida theaters on April 27, including the Regal South Beach in Miami Beach, the Gateway in Fort Lauderdale, the Regal Delray 18 in Delray Beach, the Regal Shadowood in Boca Raton and the Sunrise 11 in Sunrise. Update: Damsels will also play at the Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale on June 27 (tickets).
At the Florida premiere screening of Monsieur Lazhar at the Coral Gables Art Cinema, Canada-based director Philippe Falardeau made a rare appearance via Skype. During his introduction he waffled between a healthy, natural sense of humor and an insightful exploration of his film, typical of this stealthy, humanistic and whimsical little film. As the movie takes place in a Montreal middle school, he was asked about working with child actors. “There’s a saying in Hollywood,” he said, “‘One should never work with animals or children’ [W.C. Fields]. I think this is unfair to animals.” Of course he was joking, and the crowd roared with laughter. The director also laid out the film’s theme: “It’s a film about meeting the Other…” The same extreme but causal tonal shift typifies the drama/humor of Monsieur Lazhar, a natural extension of the affable director.
The titular character is played with a soulful quietness by Algerian comedian Mohamed Fellag (don’t expect Roberto Benigni buffoonery). He appears at the school, out of the blue, offering his services to teach a class coping with the sudden death of its teacher, who happened to have hanged herself in the classroom. Just after recess, two of the children, Simon (Émilien Néron) and Alice (Sophie Nélisse), discovered their beloved teacher’s corpse. From this morbid setup, Falardeau takes the viewer on a winding road of character dynamics with tight, powerful scenes that never dwell too long in preciousness to stagnate in melodrama. The ultimate and well-earned prize at the end of this quest for post-traumatic peace and acceptance is simple and never over-explained or sugar-coated with fanciful camera angles or sweeps and— God forbid— cloying music. This is a director with a healthy confidence in his ability to show a story through cinema.
Though it officially saw release in 2011, the film is finally making rounds in US theaters via indie/world film distributor Music Box Films. It arrives with lots of hype, as it was Canada’s entry in the foreign language film competition in the 2012 Oscar® race. Though it lost out to the more serious but amazing Iranian film A Separation, the following month it would clean up at the Genies, Canada’s version of the Academy Awards. It won best film, director, lead actor, supporting actress for Nélisse, adapted screenplay and editing.
It turns out that, indeed, the accolades bestowed on this film (and there were several others), are well-earned. One could argue Monsieur Lazhar has a tougher task than A Separation, as it totes along a sense of humor on its heavy ride to self-actualization. But the journey does not only involve the children. Lazhar brings his own baggage with him, and it is a doozy. As the Algerian immigrant finds himself dealing with the delicate emotions of pre-teens coping with a horrific death, he must deal with his own personal tragedy and a complicating secret.
Falardeau harnesses an efficient sense of story-telling with a great eye for juxtapositions. A frivolous playground scene that opens the film captures the innocence and contentedness of the children while also staying grounded in the banal. It offers a genius set-up to an encounter with the Lacanian shock of the real, setting up trauma the characters must come to terms with. Falardeau subtly pushes the chasm between the children and adults by harnessing the power of mise-en-scène. At the beginning, whenever children share the frame with adults, the adults are either shown from behind or from the shoulders down. When we see the children on their own, they are shot at their own eye-level. They are not condescended to, treated as cute props. These kids are not trivial moppet, comic relief. They are real people having to deal with some heavy stuff.
At the same time, Lazhar has his own issues to deal with. Whenever the film presents his out-of-school life, the film’s color palette becomes more muted, and not through filters or cinematographic gimmicks, but with simple, very conscious staging. The children’s world is brighter by comparison. When he wanders the school halls during the students’ group meeting with a therapist, Lazhar winds up with a paper cut-out of a fish stuck to his back. Though humorous, it also resonates with a poignancy. In his early days at the school, Lazhar pats a child on the head wandering through the hall and smacks one of his students in the back of the head when he lobs a wad of paper at a classmate. Lazhar is later told by the school’s principal that touching the children in any way is “against the law.” The camera does not zoom in or dwell on these moments, yet, at the film’s heart, it is all about this human connection and need for healing. A hug in a film never felt more powerful and well-earned.
Watch the trailer:
Monsieur Lazhar is rated PG-13, has a runtime of 94 minutes and is in French with English subtitles. It opened at the Coral Gables Art Cinema yesterday for its South Florida premiere run (I was invited to the event for the purposes of this review). They are screening it in 35mm and have it booked through April 19. It expands throughout Florida on April 20 at Living Room in Boca Raton, the Movies of Delray, the Movies of Lake Worth and on May 4 at Cinema Paradiso in Fort Lauderdale. Nationwide screenings dates can be found here.