In his archly empathetic comedies, Whit Stillman has long chronicled the uncertain ways in which young people of privilege launch themselves into worlds too in decline to offer them much. The debutante-ball life of Metropolitan or the nightclub and publishing circles of The Last Days of Disco are already dying before Stillman's overeducated naifs even get to them. That surprising resonance comes from their striving — and from Stillman's own. The world that the writer-director himself seized also is mostly gone. Who is left to finance the talky, highly literate upper-crust drawing-room elegy?
So, like many filmmakers, he's gone genre — but in doing so he remains utterly true to himself. Better still, he exhibits new mastery. Love & Friendship is his adaptation of Lady Susan, an impressively biting work that Jane Austen never finished. With the plotting and the epigrams in Austen's hands, Stillman seems liberated as a craftsman: Never before has one of his films been so crisp, so tart, so laugh-out-loud funny.
The story centers on a figure more familiar from Wharton than Austen: a brilliant, bewitching schemer (Kate Beckinsale) whose manipulation of a system in which she has little official power proves dazzling, even heroic. For all Lady Susan's glittering lies, decorum prevails, as it does in Stillman and Austen, with conflicts hidden beneath filigreed politesse.
But the film itself isn't decorous in that Merchant-Ivory English-class way. Stillman lets Tom Bennett, as a doof of a suitor, sometimes push it into irresistible sketch comedy, and he engineers terrific running gags about the labor of servants, in the background, forever lugging the principals' trunks and wardrobes from one estate to another. And Beckinsale will reel through a paragraph of Austen's richest prose, and her scene partner will blink at her, overwhelmed, waiting for the CliffsNotes. Love & Friendship is loose and sprightly, always open to suggestions.
Stillman seems committed to never shooting a scene you've seen before. To that end, he forgoes the simplest pleasures of Austen: He skips the proposals, the weddings and everything swooning or breathless about the drama courtship. This is more heist film than romance, with Beckinsale's Susan, the Platonic ideal of the cunning charmer, plotting to steal that rarest jewel of all: a life in which she is comfortable, in charge and even sexually fulfilled. She also wants the same for her teen daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), a shy wisp toward whom Lady Susan feels responsibility but little affection.
Achieving all this pits Susan against the drips and dopes of the landed gentry of the 1790s, but don't fear for her: Beneath her Babel of curls, she's a marvel of graceful falseness, called by her handsome first mark (Xavier Samuel) “the most accomplished flirt in England.” She masks her true self behind impeccable diction and Beckinsalian radiance, except when briefly alone with an ally. “It is we women of decision who hold all the trumps,” she dishes to her bestie (Chloë Seviginy), an American in London waiting for her rich husband to die. His casting is one of Stillman's best gags about the horribleness of match-made marriages: He's Stephen Fry.
Society dictates that Lady Susan's enemies must sit there beaming at her as she lies to their faces. She's so alluring a presence that they flower beneath her false regard, and she boasts in private how much she “enjoys the pleasure of triumphing over a mind predisposed to dislike” her. Stillman treats us to long scenes of Lady Susan's seductive negotiations, of men and women both, letting us revel in her elegant jabs and ripe misrepresentations. Keeping up with her is a rewarding challenge; we wonder, as her marks do, what precisely she's up to, and on my second viewing I laughed harder than on my first. Best of all, unlike female schemers in movie comedy going back to Barbara Stanwyck, Lady Susan never has to submit to a leading man to restore some dim idea of the natural order.
Stillman's first three movies famously fold together into something of a Stillmanverse, with the Barcelona and Metropolitan crews crashing into — and cluttering — 1994's The Last Days of Disco. In that film, Sevigny and Beckinsale also played friends, of a sort, but in a milieu that discourages them from a common cause. Beckinsale's Disco character shares some of Lady Susan's haughty pitilessness and her joy in compelling others to give her her way, but this portrait is fantastic in ways that one wasn't — here, you'll cheer her cruelties rather than wince at them. There are fascinating correspondences between the films, such as the suggestion that the clap, in Disco, functions something like the letters written and sent by the Love & Friendship set. The most revealing: Bottomed out deep into Last Days of Disco, Sevigny's too-nice-for-her-era young woman laments, “I'm starting to think that old system of people getting married based on mutual respect and shared aspirations and then slowly over time earning each other's love and admiration worked best.”
Love & Friendship could be a 100-minute dream sequence following that speech, a fantasy of a life where the rules are so clear, and the men so blindly certain of their dominance, that any savvy young woman with the advantages of breeding could shape from it precisely the life that she wants. Plus: the gowns! The estates! (Stillman undercuts the splendor of the latter by continually shooting through tight doorways and into corners, emphasizing a crampedness and lack of privacy.)
In a way, Stillman and Beckinsale both prove themselves Lady Susans. He has discussed his years of relative “unemployment,” and she continually gets stuck in VOD indies and go-nowhere action roles. Like their heroine, they're now both marching through their small world, demonstrating that nobody's better or smarter or going to hold them back.