DAMSEL in Distress

By Carolina Iacucci

© Strophic Productions Limited

Sibling directors David and Nathan Zellner bridge high and low in their quixotic western DAMSEL by messing with subgenre tropes and their sexist implications. They strive to shake up established roles of movie characters and gender types by giving the hero feminine characteristics and the heroine a tough, fearless spirit. Unfortunately, the prevailing tone is a cheap and phony irony: by adding boorish jokes to coarse antics, the movie drags on without gripping and often embarrasses itself.

Samuel (Robert Pattinson) is a simple-minded, pure of heart, physically clumsy pioneer eager to marry his long-time fiancée Penelope (Mia Wasikowska). He thinks she has been kidnapped and goes on a romantic rescue mission with a preacher as a comic sidekick. But after the rescue, he bitterly realizes that his beloved “damsel” could not care less about him.

Structured as a diptych, DAMSEL shows a peculiar disjunction between its first and second part: it starts as a grotesque male-centred adventure, then turns into a flimsy female-led tale. The directors aim at questioning the culturally received and cinematically disseminated clichés of the needy woman asking for male protection and approval. Nevertheless, the directors’ noble feminist purpose does not prevent them from creating a binary opposition between a stupidly smitten man and a strong-willed, insubordinate woman.

By splitting the film’s structure into ideological and formal counterparts, the Zellners paradoxically reinforce the battle of sexes instead of fighting it. The film is deeply soaked in a Puritanical obsession over double standards between the sexes and a pointless mentality of competition. Thus the premise of this movie ultimately seems to be that to substitute a man for a manly woman is enough to equate them. The film would be way more dramaturgically interesting and intellectually challenging if it admitted more complexity than its dualism and opened its gaze to a “label-less” dialectic between characters.