With Love & Friendship, Whit Stillman has finally given in and made a direct Jane Austen adaptation. And it seems like such a natural pairing of director and material that it can be easy to miss that it's also something of a risky proposition. Stillman's films have always borne a spiritual debt to Austen in their mannered comedy, their literate if not outright literary dialogue, their aristocratic milieux, their positioning of romantic attitudes as philosophical stances, and their often femme-centered focus on the circuitous ways in which men and women end up together or apart. In his first film, Metropolitan (1990), the link is more than spiritual, with several conversations devoted directly to Austen and her Mansfield Park. But in outright embracing an 18th century setting for the first time, Stillman also risks robbing his work of one of its most interesting elements: namely, the idea that Austenian characters still walked among us. They were hidden away in uptown apartments, or sitting shyly in the corner at a discotheque. But they were here and now, and they were tentatively making peace with the modern world.
I've gotten in trouble before for pitching Metropolitan to a friend as a "gentle" movie. I always remember it so much for the warm, blissed-out grace of its final moments that I forget the dark topics it dives into along the way. The story of a clique of Manhattan preppies fumbling their way through romance and anxiety during a break from college, Metropolitan is a rare modern film whose most immediate points of reference—not just Austen, but Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw—seem to predate filmmaking altogether. Yet while it constructs a version of New York out of black-tie balls and a fairy tale atmosphere, several moments rattle the spell, particularly when one member of the group recounts, in vivid detail, the story of a wealthy girl he once knew who had a nervous breakdown after being date raped. Nor is she alone in Stillman's work: the heroine of The Last Days of Disco (1998) contracts an STD after a one-night stand, and one of the college student "damsels" of Damsels in Distress (2011) is pressured into anal sex by her boyfriend, a painful experience that leaves her feeling used and disoriented.
All of which is to say: bad things happen in Whit Stillman movies, no matter how relaxing they seem. Ugly things, disillusioning things, tragedies and personal indignities that puncture the vision of the world that these comedy-of-manners characters carry around themselves. This might give the impression that Stillman is some kind of moralizer, a verdict that, with five films under his belt, seems half-true. But while he usually positions his heroes as outside or even against the freedoms that the modern world holds dear, his temperature never seems to rise. His conclusions have less to do with condemnation than with acceptance, consolation, and a kind of modest transcendence. Despite any misfortune, the gentle mood is always what remains.
Damsels in Distress—his return after a decade away—was tepid as comedy, but it made a fine statement of purpose. The Greta Gerwig heroine, a self-styled college queen bee who volunteers at a suicide prevention center, tries to fight back against depression with such flights of fancy as inventing a new dance craze (do such things still exist?) and making sure that everyone's bathroom has a bar of wonderful-smelling soap. The message is quintessential to Stillman's work: life is inherently messy and occasionally ugly, but surrounding yourself with little pleasures can pull you through. It is in this respect that the true subject of his films is not solely the privilege of wealth, but rather the way it interacts with another type of privilege: youth. His recurring subject has been the period of adjustment between the end of adolescence and the start of true adulthood, which brings certain triumphs even as expectations must so often be managed.
By contrast, Love & Friendship immediately stands out as his most purely confectionery film to date. It is his first without any undercurrent of pain, loss, loneliness, or compromise, and it arrives in theaters as essentially a stripped-down distillation of his method of comedy. Stillman has always favored an unnaturally affected performance style, where the joke is that even a character's seemingly off-the-cuff dialogue might sound like an elocution lesson. In the context of an aristocratic period piece, where such affectations are the norm and even the most mannered insulting remark is treated as scandalous, this comes off as more of a genre trapping than a personal comic trademark. Indeed, during the admittedly sluggish opening of the film, in which we're introduced to a flood of characters and backstories, it may seem like the genre trappings are enough to swallow Stillman whole. But Love & Friendship leaves a mark that's unmistakably his own, even if I suspect he'd want most of the credit sent to Austen.
The last quarter century has seen no shortage of Jane Austen adaptations, and if nothing else, Stillman proves his bona fides by digging deep into the least commonly adapted corner of her work. Love & Friendship derives from Lady Susan, a short epistolary novel written early in Austen's career but not published until well after her death. Without having to fetch a copy of Lady Susan from the library to be sure, what comes across in Stillman's film is less a rich, sweeping critique of social standards and more of a cathartic celebration of a very certain kind of bad behavior.
Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale), recently widowed, in wont of money, and preceded by rumors of utter shamelessness, juggles men, family, and friends as she climbs her way back to financial security. Middle-aged, she has a young daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), whom she cynically tries to set up with the rich, dim-witted, utterly non-threatening Sir James (Tom Bennett). Her only true confidante is Alicia (Chloë Sevigny), an American and thus an outsider herself. When Susan arrives at her in-laws' estate, unannounced and with her drama in tow, her reputation for moral corruption instantly sends them spinning. We are to take joy in this, and why not? In an environment so repressed, some corruption might do them good. But Susan is also something of a tricky character. It can become impossible to separate her evasions from her blunt honesty, her more noble motives from her selfish pleasures—except to say that, even when she's lying through her teeth, she's unapologetically true to herself.
Stillman was always more of a dramatist than a formalist, which means that he has the sort of style that might be mistaken for no particular style at all. It's rare for him that any composition, edit, or camera movement ever upstages the actors. A film like Metropolitan prefers a steady, rolling rhythm that evokes worldly calm as surely as Martin Scorsese or Tony Scott want to get your blood pumping. This sense of visual stasis holds doubly true for Love & Friendship, where the settings—a rotating stream of parlors, bedrooms, and English gardens—are as photogenic as they are interchangeable; the camera and performers interact with them so little that the actors might as well be reciting their lines on an empty stage. This leaves the emphasis almost entirely on the actors and, most of all, their words.
It's possible that no currently active American director loves the written word more, and not just because his films are ripe with literary allusions, or because (oddly enough) he sometimes novelizes his screenplays himself as a side project. Unlike the riffing of Richard Linklater or Quentin Tarantino, Stillman's dialogue generally sounds less like it's spontaneously spoken than that it's being read to you aloud, an approach suited to an erstwhile novel, particularly an epistolary one. Words are paramount in the Austen-Stillman world: they're weapons, mating calls, subterfuge, and intellectual status symbols. Lady Susan uses them to both further and obscure her goals. Tom Bennett's Sir James is pegged as insufferable because he stumbles all over them.
At one point, words are even made physical: as a note is read aloud, the words appear superimposed over the action, with letters, typefaces, and punctuation used as both sight gags and pieces of visual art unto themselves. (In a throwback to the silent era, Stillman also uses subtle irises in close-up shots to introduce the characters; along with the on-screen text, these may be the most noticeable flourishes he's ever allowed himself in the editing room.) But, like Woody Allen or Noah Baumbach, Stillman's films are invariably aware of the limits of intellect, how ineffectual it is when confronted with human emotion. Thus, by the end, Love & Friendship's most joyful thread is how characters who seemingly exist as nothing but words have revealed an undercurrent of carnality.
Separated from love, carnality tends not to end well in Stillman's films, and in truth he seems reticent to even show it. His only sex scene of note is glimpsed, briefly, in Barcelona (1994), and it's used solely to register betrayal and hurt. Metropolitan is a romantic comedy where no one is seen so much as kissing. So, for that matter, is Love & Friendship, which maintains a period-appropriate coyness that most modern costume dramas are happy to jettison. But even though nothing is ever shown, there's no doubt that it happens. And Stillman, whose focus on the downsides of sexual freedom can seem unappealingly prudish or hung-up, absolutely relishes in letting Austen's heroine have her cake and eat it too. Lady Susan is a sexual being well into middle-age, both a mother and an aggressor, an expert at courting much younger men, and an adept at dodging the social structures that might penalize her for it. Near the end, Sir James cheerfully says that women can't possibly have the same biological urges as men, and even for a character defined front-to-back as a dunce, it stands out as the most foolish opinion he's offered yet.
Stillman, then, seems like a filmmaker not of the past or the present, but of some imaginary head space in between. Just as he searched for the old-fashioned in modern settings, he celebrates what was modern and subversive in an 18th century text, as though they were both two halves of the same peaceful universe. If Love & Friendship is developing box office staying power at American arthouses, where bourgeois baby boomers look for light diversion during tentpole season, it owes much of that success to its modest amiability. Slight by nature, it flits from scene to scene, saving its best joke for when the plot almost threatens to become a drama, and ending on a wedding that fades to black so abruptly it could have been blown away on a summer breeze.
But the title, which Stillman lifted from another of Austen's early stories, reveals the one thrust of the film that goes beyond mere pleasantry. Most romantic comedies by definition lavish more attention on love than on friendship. But "Love," in its idealized, exalted form, has little more than a celebrity cameo in Stillman's film; almost all the affairs and courtships are essentially transactional. Yet note the scenes between Beckinsale's Susan and Sevigny's Alicia. A happy casting accident reunited the two actresses after they played companions in Stillman's Last Days of Disco, and though they only share the screen a few times, theirs is the sole connection in the film with honesty and equal footing, as advice and secrets flow easily between them. Men may have their uses; pointedly, Susan's happy ending involves both a rich husband who never says anything of importance, and a tall, dark, handsome lover who never says anything at all. But the bond between Beckinsale and Sevigny, a Susan and an Alicia, is the only one I have any faith will last.