The title of Whit Stillman’s latest comedy may be Love & Friendship, but while both are certainly present in the film, other, more negative qualities also abound: deception, manipulation, even outright hatred. Underneath its elegant period-picture surface—most obviously evident in Benjamin Esdraffo’s Baroque-style orchestral score and Louise Matthew’s ornate art direction—lies a darker vision of humanity that gives the film more of an ironic kick than one might have anticipated from the outset.
Stillman’s film is based on Lady Susan, a posthumously published early novella by Jane Austen that, through a series of letters, chronicles the efforts of the recently widowed Lady Susan Vernon (played in the film by Kate Beckinsale) to get herself back into the comfort of the upper class by finding husbands for her and her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark). Lady Susan, however, is as far from the traditional Jane Austen heroine as one can imagine. Selfish and ruthless, she proudly uses her sexual magnetism to lure in precisely the men she wants, and is unapologetic about dropping them if they no longer suit her needs. Her only true friend is the American Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), who shares Lady Susan’s view of the world and is herself stuck in an unhappy marriage; they commiserate and scheme with the zeal of two snickering teenage outsiders.
Austen had no interest in moralizing about Lady Susan’s behavior; Stillman pushes that amoral perspective further, filling in the details Austen left out of her novel’s epistolary structure and using his ear for witty dialogue to wring exuberant, black screwball comedy out of it all. Sharply funny lines abound. “Childbirth: We love it, but they turn against us,” she frustratedly says at one point about her daughter, imparting a difficult but universal truth about offspring in general. There’s a similar pithy toughness to her view of facts as “horrid things.” Perhaps Stillman’s most consistently hilarious touch, however, lies in his expansion of one particular supporting character: Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), the wealthy buffoon with whom Lady Susan is determined to pair Frederica, despite her obvious discomfort with him. With his obsession with agriculture and mistaken belief in the existence of twelve Commandments, Sir James gets the most broadly memorable bits of comedy, and Bennett steals every scene he’s in.
Still, the humor in Love & Friendship is hardly of the misanthropic sort. As always with Stillman, his view of the foibles of the bourgeois is unsparing yet ultimately empathetic. He doesn’t exactly soften Lady Susan’s near-sociopathic edge, and there are characters—most notably her sister-in-law Mrs. Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell)—who see through the sweet-talking surface and try to protect others from her conniving ways. But even Lady Susan has her reasons—chiefly, a practical-minded belief in the security that money provides. Such no-nonsense practicality doesn’t always account for the more illogical passions of the human heart, though, as evident not only in Frederica’s reluctance to marry Sir James Martin, but in her silent yet unmistakable affection for Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), who spends much of the film under Lady Susan’s manipulative spell.
Even as Stillman works his way toward a happy ending of sorts, Love & Friendship leaves a slightly bitter aftertaste—which is probably as it should be. In some ways, Lady Susan shares a kinship with Charlotte, the character Kate Beckinsale played in Stillman’s 1998 film The Last Days of Disco: She is a woman who styles herself as wise to human nature while not trying to hide her social-climbing ways. Stillman neither condemned nor endorsed her worldview, however, just as he refuses to do with Lady Susan; instead, as has been his wont throughout his career, he finds both characters as sources of simultaneous amusement and sociological fascination. While the more panoramic Last Days of Disco offered many different points-of-view to offset Charlotte’s scheming perspective, Love & Friendship puts us more squarely in the headspace of this one cunning character who sees people as little more than pawns in a chess game. It’s an uncompromising approach that is as necessarily discomfiting as it is gleefully droll. Such honesty has always been a hallmark of Stillman’s cinema, and even if Love & Friendship feels like more of a confection than his other films, that frankness, thankfully, still remains.
Director: Whit Stillman
Writer: Whit Stillman; based on the novella by Jane Austen
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Justin Edwards, Tom Bennett, Morfydd Clark
Release Date: May 13, 2016
Kenji Fujishima is a freelance film critic, contributing to Slant Magazine, Brooklyn Magazine, The Playlist and the Village Voice. He is also Deputy Editor of Movie Mezzanine and former editor-in-chief of In Review Online. When he’s not watching movies and writing and editing film criticism, he’s trying to absorb as much music, art, and literature as possible. He has not infrequently been called a “culture vulture” for that reason.