by Andy Nowicki
There is a subtle irony in the title of Love and Friendship—Whit Stillman's caustically glib and delightfully insouciant cinematic adaptation of the obscure Jane Austen novella Lady Susan—in that the film's protagonist appears to be uninterested in love and incapable of friendship.
Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsdale) in fact reveals herself in short order to be a loathsomely self-interested woman: manipulative, scheming, and cunning; the sort of individual who might today be labeled a "sociopath." Like most sociopaths, she possesses a high degree of intelligence, always masking the diabolical cadaverousness of her soul behind a sweet, soft voice and lovely smile.
Yet in spite of the anti-heroine's deep-rooted character flaws, Love and Friendship is far from being a depressing film. It does not linger excessively on pathological behavior, nor does it immerse the audience in despair by imparting a sense of overwhelming human evil. Instead, Lady Susan's deplorable nature is somehow ameliorated by the charm and decency of the courtly, refined, kind, and charitable culture in which she dwells (and whose very kindnesses she not infrequently exploits).
Thus, while Love and Friendship marks a kind of departure for Stillman, in being both a "period piece" and an "adaptation," it can at the same time be seen as a film that fits in well with the overall themes of his filmic portfolio. As in most of his previous films, the malignancy of a nemesis is neutralized, not via force or even direct confrontation, but due to the willed and heroic, if subtle, intervention of a community of people which—for all of their quirky, disparate, eccentric individual personalities—can nevertheless unite to bring about a salubrious outcome.
In Stillman's debut Metropolitan, two earnest young men long at odds forge a friendship over shared concern for a girl they both admire and whose virtue might be threatened by an odious would-be seducer, the vile Patrick-Bateman-esque preppy douchebag Rick Von Sloneker. (This fear proves to be comically unfounded, but it nevertheless reveals an endearing chivalric proclivity in both lads.) In Barcelona, two squabbling American expatriate cousins living in Spain manage to form a bond during a time of crisis, and in the process overcome a host of adversities, both cultural and personal, including a deadly terrorist attack undertaken by Cold War-era Eurotrash antifa. The Last Days of Disco and Damsels in Distress feature similarly unlikely moments of quiet, indeed “Stillmanlike” triumph, in which decency is enabled to prevail in some surprising mode or manner.
Indeed, looked at a certain way, Stillman’s choice to creatively “collaborate” with Jane Austen isn’t in the least representative of an aesthetic break from his standard formula. In fact, as two preeminent auteurs, Stillman and Austen share numerous essential commonalities, including an ear for singular dialogue, a passion for exquisite wit, and an understated but passionately-informed moral vision....
Which brings us back, for a moment, to Lady Susan, the “bad girl” of Love and Friendship. Susan never really receives a comeuppance; she is never exposed; she manages to fool the majority of the rest of the characters, including her own adorable but hapless daughter, into thinking that she is a sweet-natured lady who only wants the best for everyone, instead of a black-hearted, scheming Machiavel-ess. Yet for all that, Susan is subtly checked from doing anything terribly nefarious. Specifically, a couple whom she had attempted to keep apart through spite are united in matrimony in the movie’s concluding scene. And if you look carefully, you will recognize—in a seeming throwaway moment of great, searing subtlety—that she does indeed comprehend this development as a kind of personal defeat.
In a previous article, I discussed the “discrete wit” of Stillman’s cinematic ouveur. Part of this charm is attributable to the director’s unabashedly reactionary mindset. Simply put: he loves the WASP, the UHB (that is, “urban haute bourgeoisie”), the sophisticated, urbane, elegant well-bred crowd. His aesthetic preference for uber-Caucasian characters rivals that of M. Night Shyamalan; at the same time, he despises liberal mores and adores traditionalism.
Love and Friendship is one of most unapologetically white movies of the year. Its positive depiction of a staid, stable culture of manners—in which there isn’t even a token ahistorical minority in sight—is an act of defiance in its own right, given the current, mandated xenophiliac sensibilities, where even white-bread Downton Abbey had to feature a bizarrely-placed interracial romance. But Stillman’s greatness doesn’t just stem from being counter-cultural; his appeal is indeed much more than merely skin deep.