Welcome back, Whit! It’s been more than 13 years since idiosyncratic writer-director Stillman released his last “comedy of mannerlessness,” 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, and he’s returned with a beauty. To call the profoundly strange and consistently hilarious Damsels in Distress a college comedy would be to undersell it: The fictional Seven Oaks is a higher-learning institution like no other—a sun-drenched cross between utopia and purgatory where the hygiene is spotty and attempted suicides are prevalent. Our quartet of heroines, led by the dry-witted, probably certifiable Violet (Gerwig), walks around campus with Stepford Wives–like poise, bent on helping the severely depressed and counteracting the school’s “atmosphere of male barbarism.” Oh, and Violet would also like to start an international dance craze: The Sambola!
Scratching your head yet? The urbane-profane sense of humor in Damsels will likely be met with as many stone faces as joker grins (there’s a running gag about anal sex so intentionally oblique, it’s riotous). Yet it’s clear that Stillman isn’t out to win easy laughs. This is more of a subtly melancholy fantasia along the lines of Jacques Rivette’s musical melodrama Up, Down, Fragile; the filmmaker has created a fully formed alterna-world where people break into spontaneous tap numbers, openly discuss the decline of decadence and acknowledge Real McCoy’s “Another Night” as a “golden oldie.” Too many movies come to us as preordained cult objects—this is the real deal. ..
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