A part of the Melbourne International Film Festival’s official 2018 selection, Damsel is a tender ode to frontier films which places their traditional archetypes and tropes central to its particular satire. The film is the latest from the Zellner brothers whose 2014 film Kumiko was also shown at MIFF, further emphasising the festival’s eye for independent, generically unconventional films. Damsel is no exception as it expertly plays with the audience’s expectations, from its mythic genre to its casting and tone. As a slight footnote, I have an ongoing love/hate relationship with frontier films, mostly due to their depictions of women and people of colour, but I’m always ready to be surprised.
The film itself is told from the perspective of a ‘black hat’ preacher (played by co-director David Zellner) as he accompanies Samuel (Robert Pattinson) to locate and marry his ‘damselled’ sweetheart Penelope (Mia Wasikowska).
From the film’s opening, we are presented with the many tropes of the Western genre, with dazzling landscapes and lingering close-ups on newly introduced characters. Arriving in a new town, Samuel Alabaster is positioned within the Western archetype as the ‘white hat’ of the narrative, from his name to his actual white hat. Much of the film’s comedy stems from our expectations of said characters who diverge from the manner in which they should be acting. Instead of being stoic and mysterious, Samuel is quite the imbecile – a fact which is exacerbated as his seemingly elusive past is unveiled. The film’s tone shifts sophisticatedly between revelling in the fearful beauty of the mythic frontier (akin to its foundational genre) and abject slapstick humour, amplifying both the myth and subverting it.
The film’s ability to toe this very delicate tonal line is due to its excellent casting and performances, especially from Wasikowska and Pattinson. In his first purely comedic role, Pattinson is perfectly cast due to the actor’s previous roles and reputation for being quite the heartthrob. The casting furthers our expectations for Samuel to proceed on a classic ‘white hat’ journey of redemption, aligning us with him. In fact, so many of the successes within this film rests in Pattinson’s performance as he sets the status quo of the entire film by being a dashing cowboy trailing around a miniature horse named Butterscotch (who is the unadulterated star of this film).
Damsel’s co-lead is played by Australian actress Mia Wasikowska who has previously starred with Pattinson in 2014’s Maps to the Stars. The narrative is divided into three parts with the film’s climax sitting within the middle of the film when we finally meet Penelope. Before this scene, however, we come to know her through Samuel’s descriptions of her, likening her to an intelligent, flower-like creature – further aligning us with Samuel’s plan to ‘save’ the damsel, setting us up with expectations of her innocence and beauty. In reality, Penelope is hardened and more capable than Samuel had described and our allegiance as an audience switches magnetically to Penelope as our new protagonist. Additionally, this switch is accompanied by the audience realising that we had been rooting for Samuel, a laughable man willing to ruin Penelope’s life to get what he wants.
The ways in which these generic Western film archetypes are subverted denotes Damsel as a specifically contemporary film, aware of itself as well as the audience that it is being shown to. Anecdotally, the film features a Native American man frustrated with the preacher character culturally appropriating his way of life, begging to be taught his Indigenous culture. The previously mentioned climax of the film includes our ‘damsel’ rejecting the hero’s advances, only for him to exclaim “you gave me mixed signals”. Penelope’s ‘rescue’ which is meant to serve as the pathos of the narrative sets the story on a new path, centralising her experience (and knack for dynamite) and leaving the status quo of the frontier behind.
Co-director David Zellner attended the screening of this film and stayed to answer a few questions after. When asked about the prominent feminist theme which played a clear role within Damsel, Zellner responded that whilst he didn’t intend a specific timely message, that he believed that a flaw within frontier films was the framing of misogynistic objectification as a protagonist goal. Damsel’s positioning of Penelope at the centre of the narrative shapes the optics of the male characters who surround her, each wanting her for their own. And even if it was not intentional, this demonstration of male fragility when faced with a strong, pipe smoking woman reads as pretty damn feminist, widening the boundaries set so firmly by generic convention and plotting new, untold stories led by females.
Damsel is an absolute joy to watch. Having had my own issues with the Western as a genre, this film is entirely refreshing not only in its humour and subversion, but also within its gorgeous representations of American landscapes from vistas and mountains to aspen forests. See it if you get the chance – even if you’re just in it for Butterscotch the miniature horse.