Berlin International Film Festival — Day 3

68th Berlin International Film Festival — Day 3


Damsel


3) Damsel (USA, 2018)

The Zell­ner broth­ers, David and Nathan, es­tab­lish the tone of Damsel right when it be­gins, with a pro­logue that shows 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 to the East, while the drunk­ard (David Zell­ner) is head­ing West. This is the kind of scene that has been seen in plen­ty of West­erns be­fore (with ex­treme long shots that ex­plore the vast­ness of the land) but the catch is that Damsel is not re­al­ly a West­ern in the strict sense of the genre, rather an anti-West­ern slap­stick satire in which the preach­er even ad­mits that 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). How­ev­er, af­ter they part to meet her, Samuel in­forms the par­son that this is also a res­cue mis­sion – which in fact 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 the 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 sur­re­al (like a hi­lar­i­ous dis­cus­sion be­tween three char­ac­ters in the for­est in the third act). In fact, the film even reach­es the point of non­sen­si­cal with lines such as “I’m not the posse type” and ba­si­cal­ly every­thing in­volv­ing a cer­tain char­ac­ter who has an ar­row buried in his back.

Al­though this is not an easy type of film to make work, part of the suc­cess of the Damsel lies in its ex­cel­lent tonal bal­ance (and I love how a bur­ial scene shifts so quick­ly from trag­ic to com­ic in a sec­ond), part is due to the per­for­mances. Pat­tin­son keeps prov­ing that he is now 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 pho­to­graph of Pene­lope. And if David Zell­ner is very fun­ny in­vest­ing in a usu­al­ly con­fused ex­pres­sion, Joseph Billingiere is hi­lar­i­ous as a dis­gust­ed In­di­an that com­plete­ly steals the show in the short time he ap­pears.

Even so, the star is Wasikows­ka, who plays a tough damsel not so in dis­tress that knows how to use a shot­gun bet­ter than any of these man and is not moved by cheap adu­la­tions. What makes this film so au­da­cious is the way it em­ploys a hand­ful of 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, etc.) to make it clear how stu­pid they are. Lines like “Why are you do­ing this to me?” and “You gave me mixed sig­nals” make us laugh more be­cause we rec­og­nize that they were (and to some de­gree still are) what you would sad­ly ex­pect to hear from a lot of “ro­man­tic” men.

And a clever mock­ing of this out­dat­ed idea of ro­man­ti­cism could only work in a film that would throw on the floor the whole Hol­ly­wood con­cept of a hero in an an­ti­sep­tic West­ern. What we see here is sim­ply dirt, flies, ras­cals and death. Things look more re­al­is­tic than in a clas­sic West­ern, even if the cin­e­matog­ra­phy is stun­ning in the way it ex­plores the vast lo­ca­tions while the pro­duc­tion de­sign makes it all look like a trip in time to sa­loons and gun­fights (as well as the cos­tumes). 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 such a wild place where you should just take what you want and head away be­fore they take every­thing from you.

Feb­ru­ary 18, 2018


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