Manners, Morals, and Romantic Confusion: Whit Stillman's Kind Satire returns in LOVE & FRIENDSHIP
After being off the map for over a decade after the 1998 release of LAST DAYS OF DISCO, Whit Stillman has reemerged this decade in grand style, having in the last three years directed two films, an Amazon Studios pilot, and written a novel.
When I heard Stillman was directing a Jane Austen adaptation, I fretted. I thought it was a too on-the-nose idea, that Stillman’s charm was in bringing an Austen sensibility to his own contemporary Manhattan characters, engaging in friendly social-satire of a cloistered group that could easily be made contemptible in other less-attuned hands. His charm was in finding the soul inside of modern characters often determined “stiff” by others, and by directly engaging his creative soulmate Austen and her characters, I was afraid he would lose himself.
However, by taking on Austen, Stillman has reinvigorated himself, offering something genial and built on memorable fringe moments in a summer of cartoons, remakes, and bloated science fiction. And by saving the lovely and capable Kate Beckinsale from a decade plus of UNDERWORLD sequels and action films, reminding us of the subtle skill she exhibited early in her career in things like MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and his own LAST DAYS OF DISCO, he has earned the 2016 Be-Kind-To-Wayward-Actors Merit Badge.
LOVE & FRIENDSHIP is an adaptation of an early Jane Austen’s novella LADY SUSAN, believed to have been written in the mid-1790s but only published by her nephew in 1871. Beckinsale is Lady Susan, a provocative, smilingly manipulative widow without financial means trying to find a husband and a future for her daughter, and in doing so drawing the attention of multiple men, some of them married.
That’s about all you need to know, other than Stillman provides high entertainment and sublime wit in LOVE & FRIENDSHIP, and his disarming tendency to not bludgeon the viewer but instead catch us with glancing blows off our elbows remains undiminished. His psychological sensitivity is as sharp as can be and while his interests can be seen as limited as, say, Woody Allen’s, his much more empathetic view of his imperfect characters is a fantastic strength. There’s no special pleading for Stillman’s people, despite their sometimes maddening behavior. He is even-tempered as he unveils his exceptionally intelligent characters’ manipulations and delusions and pretensions and insecurities, and his trim and smart films win you over every time. He doesn’t make wealth sexy, he makes it comic, and you root for his characters to find some measure of happiness.
When these type of films work you dare bring up the word “enchanting.” His self-conscious, expressive characters are born into orderly worlds featuring complicated rules they didn’t design, and these rules offer them comfort as well as frustration. Stillman is always compassionate to these worlds, which may frustrate the anarchists among us, but while seeing the worth in the values and protocols of these characters, he is acutely aware of the limitations. He is a master of observation and what I’d term kind satire. And while his films seem highly controlled, there’s also something intuitive in them – I never quite know where they’re going. The characters in LOVE & HAPPINESS, as in Stillman’s contemporary works, ache for connection but can’t always express their feelings to anyone’s satisfaction, including their own. The film is lovely without being overdressed, and Stillman succeeds in immersing us in the sorrows of the characters while allowing us to softly laugh at them, as Austen herself did, and as Stillman has done, now, in five films over the last twenty-five years.
Also worth seeking out is Stillman’s latest unconventional novel, Love & Friendship (In Which Jane Austen's Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated), where he dares to “reimagine” Austen on the page. His last effort was his novelization of LAST DAYS OF DISCO, which was written with care and depth, not just a simple hashing-out of the screenplay. Alert and happy, respectful to Austen while having the playful effrontery to flesh out one of her less canonized works, it’s a perfect summer read. Austen’s novella provides a strong springboard for Stillman’s own sensibility to take off from, just as his DISCO screenplay provided an avenue for him to find his novelist’s voice back in ’98. Whether he has a great novel within is uncertain; he’s too good with actors not to bring his droll, pixilated characters to life onscreen. An original play might be something to pursue (if he’s looking for advice).
Out this year is the handsomely produced Criterion Box-set release of his essential 1990s “trilogy” of the young and bourgeois, featuring METROPOLITAN, BARCELONA, and THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO, which are required viewing. Looking for more? In 2014, Stillman wrote and directed the pilot episode of a "dramatic comedy" THE COSMOPOLITANS for Amazon, starring Adam Brody and LOVE & FRIENDSHIP's Chloe Sevigny; Amazon, who is a producing partner on LOVE & FRIENDSHIP has commissioned further scripts for the series.
About this time I should bring up his already mildly forgotten DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, Stillman's 2012 reemergence starring Greta Gerwig that never really caught fire. It perhaps felt too much like an afterthought as opposed to the bold 21st century reemergence that LOVE & FRIENDSHIP now appears to be, but it’s very much worth the acquaintance of Stillman devotees. It isn’t a specifically New York film like the earlier three, but it shares his characteristic construct of outsiders stepping warily into tightly knit worlds, that are often daunting because of status and wealth, but also aren’t as tightly knit as they first seem. Its light and consciously silly tone (the characters aren’t quite as bright and a bit more exasperating than in his other works, although by the end they’ll win you over) probably worked against it – it was a reemergence, but in this noisy culture, it’s hard to get a footing, and it was mildly buried despite generally warm reviews.
With LOVE & HAPPINESS’s success this summer, let us not hope that we have to wait another 15 years for Stillman’s next burst of productivity. The gentle, eccentric kick of his textures are a rare, offbeat pleasure.