Third day coverage of the 68th Berlin International Film Festival with a review of Damsel, directed by David & Nathan Zellner

Damsel

68th Berlin International Film Festival

The Zell­ner broth­ers, David and Nathan, es­tab­lish the tone of Damsel right away with a pro­logue that finds an old preach­er and a drunk­ard in the mid­dle of the Amer­i­can wilder­ness wait­ing for a stage­coach. The preach­er (Robert Forster, price­less), whose face is an ex­pres­sive map of creas­es, is go­ing East, while the drunk­ard (David Zell­ner) is head­ing West. This kind of scene has been used in plen­ty of West­erns be­fore (with ex­treme long shots ex­plor­ing the vast­ness of the land), but the catch here is that Damsel is not re­al­ly a West­ern in the strict sense of the genre, rather a slap­stick satire where even the preach­er ad­mits he had to use pages of his Bible for cig­a­rette and hy­giene.

The West is a law­less, hor­rid place, and so the old man, tired of cat­e­chiz­ing sav­ages and wait­ing for­ev­er for a stage­coach that nev­er comes, strips off his clothes and walks away into the desert, crazy as a loon. As the drunk­ard keeps the man’s Bible and goes West to be­come “Par­son Hen­ry,” we be­gin to fol­low pi­o­neer Samuel Al­abaster (Robert Pat­tin­son), a hope­less ro­man­tic who sets off into the Old West with a minia­ture horse called But­ter­scotch and a gui­tar on his back to get Par­son Hen­ry to mar­ry him to the love of his life, Pene­lope (Mia Wasikows­ka). But af­ter they part to meet her, Samuel in­forms the par­son this is also a res­cue mis­sion — which turns out to be only the first of many crazy rev­e­la­tions in their way.

Em­brac­ing a slap­stick hu­mor quite un­usu­al for a West­ern un­less you are Ter­rence Hill and Bud Spencer, Damsel de­con­structs genre con­ven­tions and of­fers a cyn­i­cal view of the Old West with mo­ments that range from car­toon­ish (when a cam­era tilts down to re­veal what hap­pened to a man who was run­ning) to ab­surd (the loony res­cue) and even sur­re­al (like a hi­lar­i­ous dis­cus­sion be­tween three char­ac­ters in a for­est in the third act). In fact, the film reach­es the point of non­sen­si­cal with lines such as “I’m not the posse type” and a char­ac­ter with an ar­row buried in his back.

Al­though this is not an easy type of film to make work, part of the suc­cess of Damsel lies in its tonal bal­ance (and I love how a bur­ial scene goes so fast from trag­ic to com­ic in a sec­ond), part due to its per­for­mances. Robert Pat­tin­son keeps show­ing us he has be­come a fan­tas­tic ac­tor and em­bod­ies the kind of dandy (fake tooth in­clud­ed) that makes us laugh out loud as he sings about his “hon­ey­bun” and mas­tur­bates look­ing at a pho­to of Pene­lope. And if David Zell­ner is very fun­ny in­vest­ing in a usu­al­ly con­fused ex­pres­sion, Joseph Billingiere is hi­lar­i­ous as a dis­gust­ed In­di­an who com­plete­ly steals the show in the brief time he ap­pears.

Even so, the star is Mia Wasikows­ka, play­ing a tough damsel not so in dis­tress who is not moved by cheap adu­la­tions and knows how to use a shot­gun bet­ter than any of these men. What makes this film so clever is the way it uses clas­sic sex­ist tropes (a man want­i­ng to save a damsel, every sin­gle male char­ac­ter try­ing to win her over by telling her she is beau­ti­ful, and so on) to make it clear how stu­pid they are. Lines such as “Why are you do­ing this to me?” or “You gave me mixed sig­nals” make us laugh be­cause we rec­og­nize they are what you would ex­pect to hear from a lot of “ro­man­tic” men.

A mock­ing of this out­dat­ed con­cept of ro­man­ti­cism could only work in a film that throws away the whole idea of a no­ble Hol­ly­wood hero liv­ing in an an­ti­sep­tic West­ern. What we see here is dirt, flies, ras­cals, and death. Things look more re­al­is­tic than in a clas­sic West­ern, even if the cin­e­matog­ra­phy is also stun­ning and the pro­duc­tion de­sign makes it all look like a trip back in time to real sa­loons and gun­fights. This is fun for a re­vi­sion­ist West­ern par­o­dy, and Damsel even uses the sounds of flies at a cer­tain mo­ment to em­pha­size how re­pel­lent those times were.

Stum­bling only oc­ca­sion­al­ly with jokes that are maybe too goofy to work (like an In­di­an try­ing to cut down a tree with a hatch­et) and twists that are too ab­surd even for a film like this (when a char­ac­ter who is sup­posed to be dead shows up alive), Damsel has a cyn­i­cal end­ing that makes to­tal sense as it shows that ro­mance is a waste in a wild place where you should take what you want and head away be­fore every­thing is tak­en from you.

Feb­ru­ary 18, 2018

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