68th Berlin International Film Festival — Day 3
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