By Nick Pinkerton
Love & Friendship
Dir. Whit Stillman, U.S., Roadside Attractions
Whit Stillman’s latest comedy, Love & Friendship, starts like his debut did: It begins in tears. In the case of 1990’s Metropolitan, it’s Carolyn Farina’s Audrey Rouget, introduced flinging herself face down onto a bed in her debutante gown, despairing of the figure that she cuts in it, while Love & Friendship opens with a scene on a somewhat grander scale, as members of the extended Manwaring family spill out of their Langford estate to bid goodbye and good riddance to Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale). Each of the Langford residents and guests is introduced in turn in a medium close-up with on-screen text giving their name and a few words of identification—a shtick that will recur through the film’s opening chapters, and which approximates the listing of the dramatis personae in certain novels—though here the decorum of the introduction is undermined by the fact that most everyone shown is wracked by variously repressed sobs, though one Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), described simply as “a bit of a ‘Rattle,’” seems possibly to be working off of a different script.
This at once ridiculous and poignant overture brings us into Love & Friendship and its world of faultlessly courteous romantic gamesmanship, where the tragic and the absurd are always cheek-and-jowl. The rules of this game are well established, though each player approaches it differently. Some, like the worldly-wise, pragmatic, and socially precarious Lady Susan, a newly widowed woman without fortune whose scintillating effect on the opposite sex has obtained her a reputation as “the most accomplished flirt in all of England,” play along merrily, only stooping to discuss the vulnerability of her situation when it might win her some advantage. Other less aggressive players, like Lady Susan’s meek teenaged daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), or the betrayed Lady Manwaring (Jenn Murray), view the stakes in terms of life, death, and immortal souls, and accordingly leave themselves open to be saved or shattered by the outcome. And then there is upper-class twit of the century Sir Martin, only the most magnificent of the story’s many dupes, blissfully unaware that there is any game going on around him at all.
Love & Friendship adapts Lady Susan, a relatively unheralded epistolary novella by Jane Austen, believed to have been written sometime around the end of the eighteenth century and not published until more than fifty years after Austen’s death in 1817. An Austen project was one of several that one would occasionally hear rumor of during Stillman’s hiatus, which lasted from 1998’s The Last Days of Disco to 2011’s Damsels in Distress, his touching and slightly faltering comeback, which found him uncertainly testing new waters outside the closed-world cycle of his so-called “Doomed Bourgeois in Love” trilogy, recently packaged together by the Criterion Collection. While Damsels attempted to tap into the affirmative and restorative spirit of the 1930s American musical, the fleet-footed, amiably wicked Love & Friendship taps into the brisk comedies of the same period from Lubitsch, LaCava, McCarey, and Leisen, produced during an age when the best sophisticated drawing room comedy came from barbaric Hollywood. (During Stillman’s downtime it was mostly Amy Sherman-Palladino and her Gilmore Girls team who acted as the torch-bearers for the American tradition of full-throttle dialogue comedy, even throwing a bit of work to Stillman regular Chris Eigeman.) Of course the single greatest influence at play here is that of Austen, who was at the center of an adaptation land rush in the 1990s, and whose Northanger Abbey (or, more particularly, a misreading of Lionel Trilling’s reading of Northanger Abbey) plays a key role in the flirtation between Miss Rouget and Tom Townshend in Metropolitan.
Much of the humor in Love & Friendship is likewise based in misreading. Dialogue heard once will later reappear distorted in the mouth of another character; brother-in-law Charles (Justin Edwards) always has to cautiously follow up his ventured quotations with fussy offer of a citation; and there is even some question as to how many holy commandments there are and what order they fall in. More often, confusion and misinformation is spread through deliberate dissembling. Austen’s original text underscores the galloping cant and hypocrisy of Lady Susan and her circle by illustrating how they represent themselves differently according to whom they’re corresponding with. Most centrally, there is a stark contrast between Lady Susan’s “official” missives to those in society whom she must to a large degree depend on the kindness of, and her private correspondences with her co-conspirator and confidant, one Mrs. Alicia Johnson.
It was presumably the casting of Chloë Sevigny that encouraged Stillman to turn Mrs. Johnson into an American expat from a loyalist family whose husband (Stephen Fry) is forever threatening her with deportation back to Connecticut—a little inside joke referring to Sevigny’s posh Darien origins. Lady Susan uninhibitedly reveals her schemes to Mrs. Johnson, who enjoys a vicarious thrill from her friend’s adventures and is seen to be more affectionate toward Lady Susan than her mate—it is the nearest thing to a frank, open, and equitable relationship that we find in either of their lives. The action of the film is set in motion when Lady Susan tells Mrs. Johnson of her intention to “humble the pride of these self important De Courcys”—meaning the extended family of her late husband’s brother, whose country estate, Churchhill, she arrives at after being booted out of Langford. To the mistress of Churchhill, Catherine (Emma Greenwell), every bit as poker-faced in keeping up a front of familial amiability as is her in-law and sworn enemy, Lady Susan pays extensive compliments, while privately reviling the dullness of the house and her horrid nephew, whom she dotes over for purely strategic reasons, much as the De Courcys take to doting on Frederica. The source of tension between Lady Susan and Catherine is the visitor’s too-close relation with Catherine’s brother, Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel), whom Lady Susan inveigles into proposing to her even as she strings along the married Manwaring. She relishes in her powers of seduction and the very daring of her subterfuges, as when, with Mrs. Johnson’s help, she arranges back-to-back appointments with courtiers during a visit to London. She’ll be caught red-handed, but never mind—for Lady Susan has perfected a sort of social jujitsu that turns her into the offended party in every situation.
It sounds rather labyrinthine, and you might be tempted to panic in the initial flurry of character introductions, but Stillman and Lady Susan proceed with such perfect confidence that this is soon forgotten in the pleasure of thrusts and parries. Even “in character,” Lady Susan barely governs her cutting nature. She never flatly says anything that she could be indicted for, but another meaning is half-visible behind even her attempts at flattery. When Catherine and the De Courcys hail Frederica’s singing voice, Lady Susan grudgingly confesses that she does have “the native talent that a bird might.” Even Lady Susan’s intimate, Mrs. Johnson, doesn’t entirely escape her friend’s tongue, damned with faint praise when her back is turned as among “the best-bred Americans.” Lady Susan is, perhaps, wicked—but how would most of us look if someone parsed our Gchat histories?
Beckinsale and Sevigny last appeared together for Stillman in The Last Days of Disco, playing two recent Hampshire College graduates trying their luck in the New York publishing world. Beckinsale’s character was what Lady Susan might call a “woman of decision,” assertive and blithely corrupt, while Sevigny was something closer to the retiring Frederica—Stillman’s moral tales are always populated by scoundrels, spiritual seekers, and holy fools, but what makes him exceptional is the degree to which he cherishes all of them without judgment. (As in Last Days of Disco, much of the story concerns the partnering off, after initial confusion, of the characters who mean what they say and those who do not.) The Love & Friendship ensemble is the best that Stillman has put together since his “Doomed Bourgeois” days, with most everyone permitted to be hysterical at least once, and Bennett given free rein to do so every single time he steps foot in the frame. His Sir Martin gives the impression of having practiced all of a gentleman’s gestures without having the slightest idea of when to appropriately employ them, a turmoil of high-pitched laughter, awkward jauntiness, and aimless gesticulations whose intended effect is puzzling in the extreme. The performance is a credit to Bennett, while Stillman has always had a particular genius for knowing how not to overstay an audience’s welcome with a character—see also his use of an Irish actor named Conor MacNeill who, playing the local curate, manages to convincingly personify the film’s moral center while being the focal point of only a single scene.
Stillman’s fifth feature is his second official “period” film, and the first evoking a period outside of his own lifespan: Barcelona is set among Yankees living in Spain sometime during the high tide of anti-American sentiment in the mid-1980s, while The Last Days of Disco lays its scene earlier in the decade. Even Stillman’s contemporary films seem somewhat out of time. Damsels in Distress, shot at Staten Island’s venerable Snug Harbor, evokes the classical tradition in its pillared campus setting and, oddly, medieval Catharism. Metropolitan takes place in a Manhattan that is suspended somewhere between 1972 and the David Dinkins era, and though know-it-all Townshend imperiously states that Jane Austen’s work, from a modern perspective, is “absurd,” the action around him suggests that certain sections of the Upper East Side haven’t really moved so far away from the aristocratic mating rituals of the knee-breeches days. In imagining the late eighteenth century, Stillman has made little effort to capture what Trilling once called the “hum and buzz of implication” in a bygone age or to give the impression of a greater world bustling around his characters, who have barely a thought to spare for whatever Mr. Napoleon might be up to across the Channel, all of them variously self-centered or obliviously sheltered by their fortunes. (A typical aside: “Far better to live on one’s own land, everyone should.”)Though much of Love & Friendship was shot at actual estates in Ireland—a portion of the funding came courtesy of the Irish Film Board—the film’s universe is nearer to a Paramount Pictures idealization than to chamber pots and busted orthodontia.
The basic dramatic material of the film is largely drawn from Lady Susan, its title comes from a piece of Austen juvenilia (Love and Freindship [sic]) likewise written in the epistolary form, and most of the best one-liners, of which there are flocks, are Stillman’s own inventions. He has taken Austen’s novella less as a yoke to be tied to than as a jumping-off point for his own imagination, even having the temerity to suggest that Lady Susan wasn’t quite complete, and offering revisions in the form of the film and its simultaneously released companion novel, Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated. As with his 2000 novel The Last Days of Disco, With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards, which replays Disco’s events through the eyes of Mackenzie Astin’s Jimmy Steinway character, Stillman’s literary Love & Friendship is a repudiation of his own film’s somewhat harsh judgment of Lady Susan, delivered by an admiring-if-dull nephew. Stillman’s first creative leanings were toward literary fiction, and though his work is as different from that of Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Jean Eustache, and Straub/Huillet as wasps differ from frogs, in his own less theory-laden way he has consistently interrogated the relationship between word and image, statement and deed, literature and cinema. He even makes this into a cracking gag in a scene between Sir and Lady DeCourcy (James Fleet and Jemma Redgrave), when he, at her behest, reads a letter from their daughter aloud verbatim, punctuation included, his recital punctiliously accompanied by on-screen text. It’s another bit of invention that makes Love & Friendship one of the most ingenious movies of recent memory and also the funniest, bringing down the house as Lady Susan brings down the manor.