In his archly empathic comedies, Whit Stillman has long chronicled the uncertain ways that young people of privilege launch themselves into worlds too in decline to offer them much. The deb-ball life of Metropolitan or the nightclub and publishing circles of The Last Days of Disco are already dying before Stillman’s overeducated naïfs even get to them. That surprising resonance comes from their striving — and from Stillman’s own. The world that the writer-director himself seized is also mostly gone. Who is left to finance the talky, highly literate upper-crust drawing-room comedy of manners?
So, like many filmmakers, he’s gone genre — but in doing so he remains utterly true to himself. Better still, he exhibits new mastery. His Love & Friendship is an adaptation of Lady Susan, an impressively biting work that Jane Austen never finished (the title comes from an unrelated Austen story). With the plotting and the epigrams taken care of, Stillman seems liberated as a craftsman: Never before has one of his films been so crisp, so tart, so laugh-out-loud funny.
The story centers on a figure more familiar from Wharton than Austen: a brilliant, bewitching schemer (Kate Beckinsale) whose manipulation of a system in which she has little official power proves dazzling, even heroic. For all Lady Susan’s glittering lies, decorum prevails, as it tends to in Stillman and Austen, with conflicts hidden beneath filigreed politesse. But the film itself isn’t decorous in that Merchant Ivory, English-class way. Stillman lets Tom Bennett, as a doof of a suitor, sometimes push it into irresistible sketch comedy, and he engineers terrific running gags about the labor of servants, in the background, forever lugging the principals’ trunks and wardrobes from one estate to another. And Beckinsale will reel through a paragraph of Austen’s richest prose, and her scene partner will blink at her, overwhelmed, waiting for the CliffsNotes. Love & Friendship is loose and sprightly, always open to suggestion.
Stillman seems committed never to shoot a scene you’ve seen before. To that end he forgoes the simplest pleasures of Austen: He skips the proposals, the weddings, and everything swooning or breathless about the drama of courtship. This is more heist film than romance, with Beckinsale’s Susan, the Platonic ideal of the cunning charmer, plotting to steal that rarest jewel of all: a life in which she is comfortable, in charge, and even sexually fulfilled. She also wants the same for her teen daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), a shy wisp toward whom Lady Susan feels responsibility but little affection.
Achieving all this pits Susan against the drips and dopes of the landed gentry of the 1790s, but don’t fear for her: Beneath her babel of curls she’s a marvel of graceful falseness, called by her handsome first mark (Xavier Samuel) “the most accomplished flirt in all England.” She masks her true self behind impeccable diction and Beckinsalian radiance, except when briefly alone with an ally. “It is we women of decision who hold all the trumps,” she dishes to her bestie (Chloë Sevigny), an American in London waiting for her rich husband to die. His casting is one of Stillman’s best gags about the horribleness of match-made marriages: He’s Stephen Fry.
Society dictates that Lady Susan’s enemies must sit there beaming at her as she lies to their faces. She’s so alluring a presence that they flower open beneath her false regard, and she boasts in private how much she “enjoys the pleasure of triumphing over a mind predisposed to dislike” her. Stillman treats us to long scenes of Lady Susan’s seductive negotiations, of men and women both, letting us exult in her elegant jabs and ripe misrepresentations. Keeping up with her is a rewarding challenge; we wonder, as her marks do, what precisely she’s up to, and on my second viewing I laughed harder than on my first. Best of all, unlike female schemers in movie comedy going back to Stanwyck, Lady Susan never has to submit to a leading man to restore some dim idea of the natural order.
Love & Friendship
Written and directed by Whit Stillman
Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions
Opens May 13, Paris Theatre and Angelika Film Center