Love & Friendship, dir. Whit Stillman│With their propensity for either faithfulness at the expense of being stodgy, or modernization to the extent of being unrecognizable, the cinematic adaptations of Jane Austen’s work seem to be a necessary measure in order to maintain the 18th century-novelist’s relevance in our cultural psyche. While her genius is deserving of such retrospectives, it’s even more invigorating when a film like Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship breathes new life into the canon of, dare I say, tirelessly overdone themes of (you guessed it) love and friendship. As visually stunning as it is clever, Stillman’s most recent endeavor abandons the contemporary Manhattan milieu from his previous work, and transcribes its dry humor into an enchanting examination of old British social faux pas.
Though Stillman has said to admire fellow director Alexander Payne’s methodology in which the artist owes nothing to the original work from which it draws inspiration, Love & Friendship incurs a lot more than that to Austen’s little-known novella Lady Susan. One could argue, however, that this period piece equally epitomizes the director’s own quarter-century-long formulation as a social satirist, simply masquerading as a costume drama to add another layer of sophistication to this modern confection. Either way, throughout the uncannily hybrid film, it is impossible to grasp where Austen ends and where Stillman begins, where the literary medium bleeds into its digital ally, nor from which century the characters inherit their wit. If anything, the film exudes a mishmash of influences where Stillman does Austen doing Oscar Wilde by way of… Frank Oz? Douglas Sirk? Quentin Tarantino? I realize that these names are hefty in and of themselves, and are loaded with their own artistic baggage–yet the film’s reliance on its screwball-repartee, its ironic genre-subversion, and insouciant self-awareness, bring Stillman shoulder to shoulder with such authorial sensibilities.
That Mark Suozzo’s vibrant musical score uses temporally incongruous compositions from before the plot’s historical moment keeps in tone with the film’s jarring intrusions of present upon past. We are greeted with similarly disorienting contemporary references through the Inglorious–Basterds-esque title cards that humorously introduce the characters. But to say that the film is an irresponsible adaptation would be beside the point–rather its very merging of lush costumes and elaborate interiors with au courant banter further reveals Whitman’s genius.
Speaking of genius, the film’s protagonist, Lady Susan Vernon, is accused of being diabolically so by her sister-in-law Catherine DeCourcy– a fine example of the relentless hypocrisy and conniving shenanigans that find avid breeding grounds at the Churchill family estate. Recently widowed, Lady Susan has no other means to survive the deeply patriarchal society than through elegantly juggling her thorough “understanding of men’s nature” and her cunning ability to undermine women. Her sole accomplice in these brewing schemes of romantic sabotage is the equally ill-minded Mrs. Alicia Johnson, whose boredom of her own marriage pushes her close enough to the edge of moral prudency in order to participate in such social charades. Besides, Alicia is an American– go figure– and is simply waiting for her husband’s next gout attack to end more favorably (that it kills him).
Seeking opportunity within one’s plight is not only Lady Susan’s trademark, but what sets her apart from her guileless contemporaries, including her wistful daughter Frederica– whose ingratitude towards her forbearer is compared to the dynamic between America and Britain (by her mother, nonetheless). But the caricaturesque nature of these relationships isn’t meant to be taken seriously. Most evident of these is Sir James Martin of Martindale, the greatest simpleton of them all. Aptly described by both Catherine and his introductory enter-title as “a bit of a rattle”, Frederica’s unintended suitor can’t pronounce Churchill, has never eaten a pea in his life, and can’t decided which two Commandments to drop (he thinks there are twelve). But Sir James is only the most discernable goof in a world where even the aristocratic estate-owners get their laughable screen-time, such as when reading a letter aloud or disputing over their preferred nickname for Frederica.
At once ridiculous and astute, Love & Friendship is nothing short of good entertainment, where the jokes take time to build and are most appreciable in their casual recurrence. It’s as if Whitman rewards those who pay attention, and if I may say so, the pay off is delightful.■
Love & Friendship / Przyjaźń czy kochanie?│ Director: Whit Stillman│ Screenplay: Whit Stillman│ Camera: Richard van Oosterhout│ Editing: Sophie Corra│ Music: Benjamin Esdraffo, Mark Suozzo│ Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Xavier Samuel, Morfydd Clark│ Producer: Katie Holly, Lauranne Bourrachot, Whit Stillman│ Production Company: Westerly Films / Blinder Films / Chic Films│Country: Ireland / France / The Netherlands / United States │ Year: 2016│ Running Time: 93 min.│ International Sales: Protagonist Pictures│ Festival: Rotterdam IFF 2016│Distribution: Forum Film Poland │