Taking its roots in colossal films made by monumental directors that define today the western genre, the Zellner brothers, David and Nathan, introduce something new and uncommon with a narrative as surprising as it is misleading, and a contemporary feature which constantly verges on absurdity.
Samuel (Robert Pattinson), a naive man convinced he is a knight in shining armour deep down inside, embarks on an adventure to free his fiancée Penelope (Mia Wasikowska) from the hands of her kidnapper. He’s determined, willing to pay a lot of money to get help and so in love he can’t see straight. On his journey, he brings along Butterscotch, a miniature horse named after Penelope’s favourite candy, her portrait in a locket and… parson Henry (played by David Zellner himself, who wrote and directed the film with his brother Nathan). The latter agrees to come along although he’s not sure why. All along, Samuel is obsessed with achieving his ultimate goal: marrying his Honeybun the second he reunites with her, yes, literally.
Setting up an eccentric atmosphere from the very first seconds and distancing himself from much more serious western movies released earlier this year, Damsel opens in the middle of nowhere in the West, in a bizarrely surreal yet ridiculously funny situation. Two men sit on a bench, waiting for the coach to arrive. One is a parson going back East when the other seeks a new life West. As they barely talk, the parson suddenly gets on his feet and strips down to his briefs before disappearing in the desert, leaving his suit for the other man to take. This is how, in the most non-religious way possible, Henry suddenly becomes parson Henry, clearly reflecting the global tone of the film.
But against all odds, the film doesn’t tell the tale of a Damsel in due form at all. In truth, Penelope is everything but a damsel in distress longing for a man to come and rescue her, except in Samuel’s eyes and imagination. She is closer to a feminist icon than the helpless and passive figure Samuel describes her as. Penelope is a tough character and doesn’t tone down her voice but on the contrary expresses her wishes, sets up boundaries, handles firearms better than any man on screen and proves she can survive by herself alone in the wild. Many times, she gets the upper hand on her male antagonists and takes the spotlight from the real main character, all due to Mia Wasikowska’s tremendous performance.
Although the storytelling feels slow and static at times, Damsel benefits from very comical moments, the apparition of characters all equally quirky, and a gorgeous and textured cinematography by Adam Stone, elements that accompany the audience on its 113 minute long ride.
Wild in every sense of the word, Damsel reinvents the conventional classic western by twisting the codes, thus coming up with something immensely goofy and weirdly hilarious.
By Marie-Célia Cannenpasse
Marie-Célia is from a French Caribbean island, and currently studying applied foreign languages at Sorbonne University in Paris, whilst taking filmmaking courses online. She enjoys listening to soundtracks curled up under a comfy duvet on rainy days, gushing about Kate Winslet or Christian Bale on a daily basis, and crying over the BBC’s adaptation of War and Peace. Her favourite films include Gone with the wind, Super 8, Call me by your name and The Prestige. You can find her on Twittter @MCeliaCR and on letterboxd too @MCeliaCR.