Whit Stillman on Love & Friendship

After years making period pieces in modern dress, Whit Stillman bites the bullet and makes a costume drama based on a forgotten Jane Austen novella. The results are as caustic and uproarious as any of his urban comedies of manners

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 12 May 2016

Picture the scene: Glasgow Film Theatre, 24 February. A packed audience sits in the darkened cinema auditorium waiting for their film to start, a frisson in the air. Then the words “based on Lady Susan by Jane Austen” pops up on screen, and without missing a beat someone near the back row lets fly that familiar Glaswegian lament – “Aw, fur fuck sake.”

You see, this is no normal screening, but Glasgow Film Festival’s annual surprise movie. The concept behind such an event is that audience members come along with an open mind, ready to let whatever film the programmer has chosen wash over them. That’s the theory at least, but clearly some of the evening’s prejudice-free film fans hadn't braced themselves for a Regency-era drama from the writer of Pride & Prejudice; audible groans, shuffling in seats and a few people already heading for the door.

Early on, however, several factors alert us that this movie, called Love & Friendship, is no stuffy frocks-and-bonnets picture. First, it doesn’t have that costume drama languorousness, where scenes move at a snail’s pace so you can admire the stately homes and finely-stitched apparel. Instead it moves like a whip, with no scene wasted over its lean 90 minutes following the romantic and social chess moves of Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale), a recently widowed schemer who’s trying to get her clutches into a young, handsome and filthy rich in-law (played by Xavier Samuel). 

Second, it’s a riot. The tone is set from the opening credits as characters are introduced with playful one-line biographies. Lady Susan’s unpaid skivvy, Mrs Cross, for example, is described concisely as “impoverished friend; ‘helps pack & unpack’”; Sir James Martin, a wealthy young suitor who thinks there are 12 commandments and to whom Lady Susan is trying to marry off her daughter, is simply, “a bit of a ‘Rattle’”. 

There’s another element in the credits that alerts us to the fact we’re in good hands: it’s directed by Whit Stillman, our premier chronicler of the romantic endeavours and behaviour codes of bright young things. But we’re surprised to see him allowing his movie to be thrust upon an unsuspecting audience in this way. “I did that once before,” says Stillman down the phone when we mention seeing the film at Glasgow’s surprise screening, “with Damsels in Distress, at the London Film Festival. The reaction was... very mixed.” He’s clearly mellowed since this incident. When we spoke to him back in 2012, a few months after that screening, he describe the reaction as being “like the English civil war all over again.”

Jane Austen – with added Whit

When we ask why he thinks Love & Friendship has been more warmly received he posits a simple theory: the brilliance of Lady Susan, the little-known, posthumous Austen novella on which the film is based. “This is Austen’s funniest material,” he says in a voice that, like his films, is both gentle and rapid-fire. “It’s really unusual, very wildly comic in the original.” He’s not kidding. We knew Austen was a bone-dry wit. Who knew she could be laugh-out-loud hilarious? “It sort of ties into the history of comedy,” he suggests. “It feels more like a precursor to an Oscar Wilde play or something.”

Generously, Stillman’s not taking credit for the LOLs. “The best lines are all from Jane Austen, they come straight from the novel,” he insists. The most wicked of these spill from the lips of Lady Susan herself. Typical zinger: “What a shame you married Mr Johnston: too old to be governable, too young to die.” Or our favourite: “May [Mr Johnston]'s next gouty attack end more favourably.” She says both to Mrs Alicia Johnson, the only society friend she hasn’t yet offended.

Fans of Stillman’s shimmering 1998 comedy The Last Days of Disco will doubly appreciate these lines, as they represent a reunion between that earlier film’s leads, Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny, who plays Mrs. Johnson. “They certainly have chemistry” says Stillman. “They know how to play together.” It’s particularly satisfying to be reminded of Beckinsale’s comic brilliance, and with Lady Susan she gets to deploy the same potent mix of sweet and sour that made her turn in ...Disco so delightfully catty. She's a dream of a character.

“Lady Susan's a world beater,” says Stillman. “She’s the kind of character I like.” As well as Beckinsale’s character in ...Disco, you’ll find shades of Lady Susan, too, in the sharp-tongued rogues Chris Eigeman has played for Stillman. “I do find something appealing about people who kind of get their own way as con artists or persuasive people. I particularly like it if there’s a kind of sweetness in what they’re doing. So although Lady Susan is amoral and she’s bending everyone to her will, she’s sort of cheerful about it. If she was really dark I think it would be a bit tiresome.”

Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale reunite in Love & Friendship

While we don’t discount the Jane Austen factor in Love & Friendship's warm reception, we don’t completely buy Stillman’s argument either. Damsels in Distress, The Last Days of Disco, and his other two features (Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994)), for which he provided original scripts, have similarly delicious wit, but they failed to please a mainstream audience. His stiff dialogue, italicised performances – part irony, part sincerity – and intentional deviations from naturalism seem to be an acquired taste. It can cause people to recoil. 

We suggest that putting a few centuries between his characters and the audience makes his mannered style less noticeable – easier for devotees of realism to swallow. “I have had some problems getting acceptance in my anachronistic versions of things in the films set within the last 30-40 years,” he admits. “Like with Damsels in Distress, we got this amazing amount of static because there were no cell phones – people were very upset about that. I don’t know why it’s that important for people. But, in this case, we didn’t have to worry.”

It’s a surprise that it’s taken Stillman this long to set a film fully in the past. His arch approach to love and etiquette in his earlier movies already make them feel like period pieces. “I see them more as moral comedies in which the characters are trying to find their place in the group and their identity in life,” says Stillman. We note that that would also make an apt description for Persuasion or Emma. “That’s why my identification with Jane Austen has been total.” 

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This affinity is there for all to see in Stillman’s debut, Metropolitan, a homage of sorts to Mansfield Park, which transports many of the novel’s themes from Regency England to the self-titled “urban haute bourgeoisie” of Park Avenue, New York. Stillman bows his hat to Austen explicitly in a debate between Metropolitan’s will-they-won’t-they lovers, Tom (Edward Clements) and Audrey (Carolyn Farina). We remind Stillman of Tom’s beef with Austen: “Nearly everything Jane Austen wrote is ridiculous from today’s perspective,” he says to Audrey during one of the film’s many upper-east side afterparties.

The 64-year-old writer-director then recalls Audrey’s line perfectly: “Oh yeah, then she says, ‘Have you ever considered that today, looked at from Jane Austen’s perspective, would look even worse?’ That was a good topper on her part.” Suffice to say, he sides with Audrey on this argument.

This love for Austen hints at another reason why audiences have taken time to warm to his style, and why his films are some of the most original in American independent cinema. While the likes of Quentin Tarantino, David O Russell and Steven Soderbergh, who all appeared on the scene around the same time as Stillman, grew up movie-mad and show those influences in their own cine-literate films, Stillman’s defining auteurs were literary. They had Godard, Scorsese and Altman, he had the brittle wit of Austen, Fitzgerald and Waugh. Might this explain his struggle to find an audience?

“I guess it depends where you’re coming from. We’ve done well among professors and romance language departments,” he laughs. 

In terms of cinema-going, not a huge demographic. 

“You’re right, maybe that is a factor. When Quentin Tarantino was in the video store, I was definitely in the library, so I only get the library crowd.”

There must be some pain beneath Stillman’s drollery. The 14 year gap between The Last Days of Disco and Damsels in Distress was no sabbatical. The abandoned projects – mostly due to lack of financing – have been many. The tide does seem to be turning, though. In fact – without wanting to jinx him – Stillman seems to be on a bit of a role. Between Love & Friendship and Damsels in Distress he made The Cosmopolitans, a TV pilot for Amazon, which follows the romantic imbroglios of a group of idle American expatriates in Paris, and it looks like more episodes are on the way. “They gave me permission to do six more scripts and then they’ll decide if they want to do it,” he says hesitantly. “I think they want to do it, but I have to write the scripts.” 

We can understand the trepidation given his setbacks, but his “wasteland years”, as he refers to them, seem behind him. This chronicler of decline and fall even seems optimistic. “Every time you make a film, you sort of hope that it’s going to open the door to new people liking the older films. I’ll forever hope that people will look back and like Damsels in Distress better. I mean, plenty of people liked it, but a lot of people didn’t like it – and they more than didn’t like it, they loathed it. And so I hope that if this film does well maybe they’ll reconsider or see the earlier films.”

If the audience we watched it with are any judge, Love & Friendship will go down a storm. Up until now, for Stillman fans, that famous Austen quote has applied: "One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other." We might have to start sharing this wonderful filmmaker with more than the library crowd. 

Love & Friendship is released 27 May by Curzon/Artifical Eye

HOME, Manchester, screen a 'Whit Weekender' 3-5 Jun. The Last Days of Disco, 3 Jun; Damsels in Distress, 4 Jun; Barcelona, 5 Jun