Love & Friendship
Whit Stillman’s latest, Love & Friendship, finds the director treading new territory in a period adaptation of a Jane Austen short epistolary novel, Lady Susan. Kate Beckinsale plays the cunning, eponymous lady, with Chloë Sevigny as her meek American sidekick, Alicia Johnson. It’s an intertextual echo of their 1998 roles as frenemies Charlotte and Alice in Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco. But while the film’s title tantalizingly suggests a return to the repulsion-attraction dynamic that Last Days captured so well, both love and friendship are conspicuously absent.
Love & Friendship tells the story of a destitute noblewoman, Lady Susan, and her machinations to marry off her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) in order to save them both from penury. In one of the sole clever quips in the script, Susan explains their impending homelessness to her daughter thus: “We don’t live. We visit.” And so the apparatus of her schemes grinds dully on.
Though Beckinsale is at times deliciously wicked, a lack of narrative tension and the flatness of the characters who could potentially serve as her foils render her powers of manipulation rather unimpressive. Sevigny’s portrayal of Alicia is particularly awkward, vacillating between adoration and piousness toward the all-powerful Susan. This lack of dimension is particularly mysterious, as Sevigny is famous for ironically toeing the line between two extremes—hard, schoolmarm-ish sanctimony and jagged sexiness.
Stillman has never been a particularly visual director. There is often a stilted, almost campy quality to his camera work and editing that plays well against his witty dialogue when it all comes together in the right way. In the almost complete absence of any one-liners in the script, or even narrative momentum, the images are achingly boring. Sunlit drawing rooms and palatial gardens, the bread and butter of period pieces, look dull and uninviting. Even the costumes sit on the actors’ bodies as if they chafe. Beckinsale’s towering wig often appears frizzy and slightly askew.
This sloppiness extends to the script, which hews to neither period dialect nor contemporary English. This further clouds the characters’ motivations and actions. A period piece can either represent the past or use it as an allegory for the present, but, cast adrift somewhere between Georgian England and the present, Love & Friendship does neither. Even in Stillman’s best films are marked by a strange out-of-time-ness. The mores and social codes of late-eighties Manhattan in Metropolitan, for example, could just as well have taken place in the fifties.
Stillman’s class dramas partake of an old-money American fantasy that’s been dead for at least thirty years. Earlier in his career, this was slightly charming, but with time, his nostalgia has revealed itself as empty—a refusal to acknowledge an American landscape fundamentally altered by the various civil rights movements of the second half of the twentieth century. This was particularly apparent in 2011’s basically unwatchable Damsels in Distress, which treats a group of college-age women as whimpering neurotics seeking to “reform” the libidos of their male classmates, an odd temperance movement for women living in the twenty-first century.
I was initially thrilled to hear Stillman was adapting Austen, thinking it could be a return to form. After all, Austen’s writings—so rife with yo-yo-ing social status, romantic-economic love triangulations, and petty intrigues among the bourgeoisie—seemed to be ideal material for Stillman, who’s built a filmography of occasionally brilliant but mostly uneven quality on these conceits. But, in addition to being milquetoast and retrograde, Love & Friendship is riddled with all the problems of Stillman at his worst.