“Facts are such horrid things!” writes Mrs Alicia Johnson to Lady Susan Vernon in Jane Austen’s early novella, Lady Susan.1 In Whit Stillman’s film Love & Friendship (2016), 2 adapted from Austen’s posthumously published work, best friends Mrs Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny) and Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) are avatars of this concept, as their contempt for uptight society and the establishment is shaped by a charming and subtle wit. This approach comes both from Stillman, but also very much from Austen, whose wry observations of class and gender relations have impressed readers for centuries. By his own account, Stillman is heavily beholden to Austen, as he told an enthralled audience at the film’s premiere at Sundance Film Festival in January 2016. And while this debt is clear, this adaptation of an epistolary novella became a film only with significant script work, fleshing out scenes to create engaging characters and absorbing dialogue from exchanges relayed originally through extensive letters. From Xavier Samuel as Lady Susan’s love interest (and victim of her subterfuge) Reginald de Courcy, to Stephen Fry (who filmed his scene in two days) as Mrs Johnson’s rich (and “gouty”) husband whose threats against his wife to ship her back to Connecticut are barely taken seriously, to Morfydd Clark as Susan’s daughter Frederica, “born to be the torment of my life”,3 the film’s characters all contribute to the joyous atmosphere. Tom Bennett as Sir James – the character perhaps the most fleshed out from Austen’s novella – is key to the film’s atmosphere and plot. But it is through Lady Susan, an outsider in the sense that she is not afraid to let her desires be restricted by society, that this comedy is anchored, for as Mary P. Nichols notes, “comedy lies in the discrepancy between that society’s understanding of itself and what the outsider sees.”4 Austen’s verbal humour remains intact, with Stillman’s formal approach of an observant camera and small cinematic flourishes embellishing the tale.
When I spoke to Stillman over the phone in July 2016, he had just seen Love & Friendship at the Jerusalem Film Festival in a magnificent room with excellent sound, and was very impressed with the theatrical outcome. As a filmmaker and social observer whose works comment on and dissect matters of reputation, Stillman’s own is as a bourgeois cinematic mannerist. As illustrated his “Doomed Bourgeois in Love” trilogy (Metropolitan , Barcelona , The Last Days of Disco ), Stillman is skilled at distinctly combining the present with a past. His latest period film is set across a number of family estates, centred at Churchill, in 18th century England, yet in some ways he is finally facing up to the challenge set by his first film Metropolitan, when Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) mocked, “Nearly everything Jane Austen wrote is ridiculous from today’s perspective.” Audrey Rouget’s (Carolyn Farina) retort was: “Has it ever occurred to you that today looked at from Jane Austen’s perspective would look even worse?” The tone of Love & Friendship is so perfectly suited to both authors that it seems unfair their work has never officially met before beyond this fleeting line, but as Claire Perkins’ notes, Stillman had been “frequently described as a Jane Austen for contemporary times.”5 In true Austen style, there are insults buried in nearly every exchange across most of his films: he told me that when writing Metropolitan, he would read a few pages of Jane Austen as a palate cleanser. Perhaps Austen sharpened his tongue, too.
Like so many of Stillman’s works, Love & Friendship concerns a group of people held together by their indifference to each other as much as their utmost respect for class propriety and, of course, fiscal gain. The Sundance programme blurb described the film as “set in the opulent drawing rooms” of its players, but beyond this, its hallways and carriages provide some of the film’s most significant moments of intrigue, emphasising distances between people as they make swift exits or attempt to travel between locations unnoticed. Dramatic cuts to hallways slice into conversations, characters walk through doorways leaving them empty as a reminder that during these times, much happened behind closed doors. In Austen’s novella, Mrs Vernon comments, “how great was my astonishment at seeing Reginald come out of Lady Susan’s Dressing room,”6 and one can sense the awkwardness that would have followed such an unplanned encounter. Any misbehaviour occurs offscreen. In his construction of the film, severe exchanges don’t interrupt Stillman’s recognisably lighthearted atmosphere, as they are relayed instead in expositional conversation, or via cheerful cursive onscreen text to visualise the written civilities practiced in such society, also extending the novella’s epistolary origins to the cinema. Impoliteness is taboo in this society, so it is perhaps why Stillman avoids such blatant depictions, instead crafting delicate elisions.
For Richard Brody, Stillman is “the cinema’s novelist of manners,”7 and in some ways can be seen as a descendent of Ernst Lubitsch, Hollywood’s supreme defender of polite society. Stillman adores Lubitsch’s films, particularly Shop Around the Corner (1940), because the earlier director doesn’t spell things out; subtlety is his key. “I like things to be oblique,” says Stillman, citing The Last Days of Disco as an example. “When Robert Sean Leonard and Chloë Sevigny dance down the corridor, we stop at the closed door.” Like Lubitsch, if characters “end up with each other, they don’t kiss each other.” It’s this respect of their audience’s intelligence that aligns the work of these two filmmakers: a playful courtesy for what happens behind closed doors, an appreciation that resolutions can be even more delicious when shrouded in a little mystery. Clearly inspired by the period in history, Stillman fondly evokes the effect of the Production Code on Hollywood, preferring films forced (or perhaps inspired) by censorship to those made in the looser Pre-Code era. “It’s odd that they had this incredibly idealistic and happy Production Code just when the world was going to perdition,” Stillman says, but perhaps that’s just the kind of irony suitable for focus in one of his films. “I kind of like the Production Code version of ‘life in the world’,” Stillman admits.
In Love & Friendship, Beckinsale as Lady Susan is the film’s protagonist and key manipulator of those around her, but Sevigny, a regular in Stillman’s work, is also irreplaceable. The women share scenes that recapture their onscreen chemistry in The Last Days of Disco, and the set-up is often similar: a visual two-shot motif both isolating their conversations and bringing them closer. As young women, they stood in front of bathroom mirrors and gossiped in little black dresses; they perform similar activities in Love & Friendship, their encounters embellished by ostentatious 18th century costumes. While Sevigny was tied to the film from early in its development, Beckinsale joined later, but Stillman says he always had her in mind and planned this film as something of a reunion for the two women. Stillman refers to their connection as an alkaline one, both effervescent and complementary: “Kate has that cutting humour and intelligence and wit, in the Lady Susan part, and her friend and confidante played by Chloë is balancing that.” Additionally, Stillman adds a flourish to Love & Friendship, describing Alicia as a North American transplant and “a Connecticut Yankee”8 Sevigny’s occasionally deadpan but often joyous facial expressions, her sly responses, and cheerful companionship provide layers for the filmic representation of Austen’s comedy. “I sometimes feel people are underrating what Chloë is doing and how she helps our film, because I’ve discovered that it’s often the reaction to the funny line that actually gets the laugh.” This is something Stillman treasures.
In Austen’s novella, Lady Susan’s manoeuvres seem much more callous than in the film, her actions much more unforgiving. While she has a façade of charm, it isn’t simply Stillman’s (or Beckinsale’s) appeal that assist in this transformation. “I think you’re right that she comes off much more negatively in Jane Austen’s manuscript than in our film,” Stillman agrees.
Part of it is intentional, trying to make her seem less odious and scale that back a little bit. But part of it, I think, is what makes film vicious. You know, Plato criticised poetry, and theatre’s been banned in different periods, and we make fun of the puritans and others for banning these things, but I think we have to respect them a little bit, because what they’re thinking is kind of true. I mean, if they do have this theology or ideology, film and theatre do do things that are vicious. There is something very strange in cinema that makes bad characters attractive and bad role models.
Beckinsale appears to be having a wonderful time playing this devious woman of ill morals, and by assuming a constant air of good manners it is difficult to fault Lady Susan’s social performance. Yet as with every Stillman film, this is a classic ensemble piece in which every character is engaged in navigating taboos and certain social expectations – or performing to live up to the required perceptions of those expectations. In Damsels in Distress (2011), a group of collegians expect newly enrolled college student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) to behave as they do, and she attempts to meet their demands. In the pilot episode of his Amazon television show The Cosmopolitans (2014), a group of American men believe they can live like “Parisians” because they’re expats. This also appears in the behaviour of servants in Stillman’s Love & Friendship; he includes Austen’s underlying mistrust of servants, with Lady Susan aware that – because their roles bid them to be invisible – they have ears and are “impossible to be sure of.”9 Stillman notes that servants could overhear things so were the only people who could see through Susan’s façade, but their roles bid them to be invisible. All these characters are putting on an act, and seem content to do so. And yet, as Claire Perkins notes, Stillman’s exploration of social behaviour posits that “the human is not a definable type; it is a concept that can only exist as difference, resonating from continual reframings and recastings.”10 And it fits; what The Last Days of Disco identifies as the “ferocious pairing off” of couples from the social group remains a desirous happy resolution in Love and Friendship, although in the latter film, it is dictated by gender and fortune.
Stillman’s films are character-driven as he strives to explore human nature, led by parlance and whimsy rather than plot. Narratives occur, but often seem woven around scenarios, taking shape only to service particular topics of conversation. They are also structured around music and rhythm, and Stillman is surely the modern American filmmaker who has come the closest to making a musical without actually doing so: think of Ted Boynton (Taylor Nichols) reading the Bible and tap-dancing alone to “Pennsylvania 6-5000” in Barcelona, the Sambola in Damsels in Distress, the simple The Last Days of Disco credit sequence that presents a romantic plot resolution through body language, not dialogue, and the O’Jays’ “Love Train”. As L. V. Anderson writes of Barcelona, dance “has the power to awaken not only sexual desire but also religious revelation, true love, and dormant memories,”11 but this applies to Stillman’s films more widely. Stillman agrees in regards to his film Love & Friendship; of a brief scene at an evening dance at Churchill featuring the lead characters, Stillman confirms it wasn’t in the script but “started out just to have an image of dancing for the trailer.” When finances and scheduling had been arranged, the narrative relevance became apparent to him – the scene indicates Frederica’s suffering at her prospective betrothal to Sir James by displaying him as a severe cause of embarrassment for her, and suggests sher growing admiration for Reginald – Stillman knew the scene would be key. But for Stillman, the most important thing about this scene was not the dancing, but the sound composition. “We recorded the characters making human sounds – breathing, laughing – because we’ve taken out the production sound, mostly, to put the music in,” Stillman says. The sound mix may have been difficult to balance here, with Tom Bennett’s laughter the most prominent. Ultimately, though, the sound remains very pleasant, and Sir James’ silliness is conveyed visually through bodily expression. (Notably, when Sir James first arrives at Churchill, his laughter precedes his physical entrance by almost a minute.) “Silly” is a strong term in the context of Austen’s 18th century: it is a serious insult, but there is a divine levity to it.
For Stillman, making independent films is difficult; nothing is given, and everything must be fought for. Stillman acknowledges that his cast and crew make this easier, and he has worked with composer and musical director Mark Suozzo in particular on every film so far (collaborating with Benjamin Esdraffo in Love & Friendship). The process of selecting music was difficult, as Stillman found they were gravitating towards contemporary music from other films of the period, like Schubert’s “Piano Trio in E-flat” and “German Dance No. 1” that are too married to their use in Barry Lyndon (Stanley Kubrick, 1975). They therefore experimented, using baroque music even though Stillman’s film is set just a little after that genre’s popularity, and a piece by Beethoven written in 1808. Although this timing was slightly anachronistic, Stillman reflects that atmosphere and genre is more important than such minor accuracies. “There’s this element of speed and threat and velocity and drama in our little comedy, and a lot of that comes from the juxtaposition of the images with music,” elements which build on each other. Of the placement of Vivaldi’s “Stabat Mater RV 621: Eja mater, fons amoris”’ Stillman remembers “a shot of birds flying up across a twilight sky, and it seems very gothic and menacing and worrisome,” which he used to lend a dramatic heightened realism to its comedy. Stillman favours this juxtaposition of drama and absurdity, perhaps because he enjoys manipulating his audience and composing onscreen worlds: “It’s a little bit deceptive, but all film has to be.”
As with so many characters in the Stillman canon, those in Love & Friendship speak with a verbosity that is almost artificial, an extension of their performances. As described in the novella, Lady Susan is directed by “artifice”12 – the film replicates this, recalling Violet’s (Greta Gerwig) comment in Damsels in Distress, “I love cliches and hackneyed expressions of every kind.” Every actor seems to be in on the joke, participating in this perfectly composed world. But at the same time, they act as though perfectly oblivious to it. Stillman is an exquisite observer of human nature, group psychology, and of the behaviour that defines social fabric. Although dialogue heavy, the nature of the work is cinematic chiffon, optimistic and a little absurd (still other qualities favoured by Violet). But this is not a criticism: in The Last Days of Disco, Beckinsale’s character says, “People hate being criticised. They hate it. It’s one of the great truths of human nature.” This itself is a rather Austen-like line, but it suits Stillman well. He says, “I try to think of things that are true that the characters can say, and I think that people do hate being criticised really is a truth universally recognised.” Luckily, there’s little reason to criticise Stillman’s work: while each of his five films stand on their own, it is increasingly clear that they are a richly interwoven oeuvre.
- Jane Austen, “Lady Susan”, in Love and Freindship and Other Youthful Writings, Christine Alexander, ed. (London: Penguin Books, 2014), p. 310. Austen almost consistently spells the word “freindship” in her published juvenilia and on other occasions spells other words with this arrangement of verbs. Words have been preserved as in Austen’s original manuscript, and in this case, the editor suggests is “indicating her indecision over the spelling of this word” (p. 400, n3). ↩
- The film’s title comes from another of Austen’s early novellas. ↩
- Austen, p. 262. ↩
- Mary P. Nichols, “Whit Stillman’s Comic Art”, The Intercollegiate Review, (Spring 2000): p. 5. ↩
- Claire Perkins, “Remaking the Film Trilogy: Whit Stillman’s Authorial Triptych,” The Velvet Light Trap – A Critical Journal of Film and Television, (Spring 2008): p. 21. ↩
- Austen, p. 329. ↩
- Richard Brody, “Whit Stillman’s ‘The Cosmopolitans’,” The New Yorker, 27 August 2014, ↩
- This joke adds to the canon of Hollywood films that make Connecticut the site of ridiculous comedy, including The Awful Truth (Leo McCarey, 1937), Bringing Up Baby (Howard Hawks, 1938), and The Lady Eve (Preston Sturges, 1941). ↩
- Austen, p. 328. ↩
- Perkins, p. 21. ↩
- L.V. Anderson, “‘No more ridiculous than life itself’: Why Whit Stillman Loves Dancing”, Slate, 10 April 2012. ↩
- Austen, p. 275. ↩