Our novelists, from Austen to Christie, spy hints of trouble lurking beneath the placid surface of civilized life.
Whit Stillman made his name in 1990 with Metropolitan, an Oscar-nominated low-budget charmer that remains fresh and enjoyable today. Stillman wrote and directed the film, which focused on a group of mostly well-heeled college freshmen who spend Christmas break frequenting elegant parties and late night bull sessions in what one character calls the “urban haute bourgeoisie” haunts of Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Although nearly every character in Metropolitan is young, probably most of its more ardent admirers are not. Unless they happen to be film majors of the sort who also own box set collections by European directors like Eric Rohmer and Mike Leigh, younger viewers are likely to find Metropolitan on the slow side, and its characters, although attractive in their tuxedos and evening clothes, too pretentious and self-absorbed. But older viewers, those distanced from their own college dramas by a decade or more, are more likely to appreciate the film’s ironies, and to regard its characters with a certain indulgence as they posture and speechify, trying on roles. These are the viewers who are likely to enjoy Stillman’s dialogue-driven style, and his attempt to infuse his movies (which also include 1994’s Barcelona and 1998’s The Last Days of Disco) with something of the high style and glamour that, from the 1930s until the late 1960s, were frequent features in American movies.
Stillman’s 2011 release, Damsels in Distress, covers similar ground in a more deliberately idiosyncratic way. Like Metropolitan, it focuses on students coming of age in a rather rarefied corner of contemporary American society. Its main character, an upper classman called Violet (Greta Gerwig), attends pretty little Seven Oaks College, where she and her three roommates take it upon themselves to bring a bit of gaiety and panache to a campus culture where, despite the presence of lectures, professors, and a well-stocked library, a certain Animal House ethos prevails.
Violet, who dresses like a stylish co-ed circa 1955, is another of Stillman’s great talkers. She expounds readily if eccentrically on a wide range of matters related to etiquette, fashion, and modern morality. She’s quite convinced, for example, that tap dancing and sweet-smelling bath soaps can do much to lift the spirits and heal the soul. Violet tries avidly, and sometimes charmingly, not to be cool, just as the film itself tries a little too hard to be quirky, or so some of its critics observed. What, they wondered, was this odd film aiming to accomplish? Had its famously understated director simply gone off the rails?
Stillman perhaps hints at his intentions when, in one scene, Violet attends a lecture about Ronald Firbank, the Anglo-Irish novelist of the interwar period who won praise in certain literary circles for his fey, slightly scandalous, and often thoroughly absurd novels like Valmouth (1919). Firbank is an acquired taste; and Damsels in Distress, which appears to imitate his work, is mainly clunky, taking its silliness too seriously.
The filmmaker has more frequently signaled his fondness for Jane Austen, whose literary spirit informs much of his work. His latest film draws upon the novelist’s intriguing collection of juvenile stories and novellas, none of which appeared in print during her lifetime. More precisely, Stillman has borrowed the title of one early piece—Love and Freindship, dated 1790 and carrying that unusual spelling—and applied it to another, Lady Susan, which was the last of Austen’s apprentice works (from 1794 or thereabouts). A tale of ardor, connivance, and deception told entirely in letters, Lady Susan lacks the depth and polish of Austen’s great mature works, including Pride and Prejudice (1813), Emma (1815), and Mansfield Park (1814). But it’s compelling nonetheless, thanks to the title character who is a marvelously nasty piece of work.
Lady Susan, Austen writes, is not only “excessively pretty,” but a “distinguished flirt.” She is in fact “the most accomplished coquette in England.” The object of considerable gossip, Lady Susan captivates men and infuriates women, who rightly see her as a self-serving seductress who has blithely left in her wake broken hearts, broken homes, and at least one dead husband. Having just been widowed, Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) decides to descend upon her late husband’s brother, Charles Vernon (Justin Edwards) and his wife Catherine (Emma Greenwell) at Churchill, the Vernons’ grand estate out in the home counties.
True to form, Lady Susan wastes little time making a play for Catherine’s twentysomething brother Reginald De Courcy (Xavier Samuel), who is visiting at Churchill. A handsome but credulous young man, De Courcy assures his family that, no matter what, he will resist the legendary charms of the thirtysomething widow. It’s a challenge she cannot resist. As Lady Susan tells her confidante Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny), she intends to wed Reginald partly to settle a score with Catherine Vernon and others in the De Courcy family who, she complains, assume superior airs. Besides, the wealthy Reginald is too easy a target to pass up. He falls completely for Lady Susan’s self-portrait as a helpless widow “bullied” by a cold, cruel world.
Complications ensue, however, when Lady Susan’s 16-year-old daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) unexpectedly turns up at Churchill, having been expelled from boarding school. (Lady Susan, who prefers to ignore Frederica, has also been ignoring her fees.) Sir James Martin then arrives, hot on Frederica’s trail. Sir James, wonderfully portrayed by the popular English comedian and television actor Tom Bennett, is amiable, vastly rich, and perfect for Frederica, or so Lady Susan insists. Frederica balks, making the obvious point that Sir James is, as Reginald puts it, “a complete blockhead.” But he’s also, Lady Susan points out, a port in the storm for the daughter of a poor widow forced to rely on the hospitality of relatives and friends. Sir James, she stresses, is willing to bestow upon the right woman “the one thing of value he has to give—his income.”
And so, with the players in place, the match begins. Sir James wants Frederica, who is drawn to Reginald, who worships Lady Susan, who also dallies with Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O’Mearain), who never speaks but looks great, a Regency hunk of the highest order. Lord Manwaring, however, himself a predator, has his own complication: a very wealthy but high-strung wife (Jenn Murray) who shrilly sounds the alarm about Lady Susan’s shameless maneuverings around Lord Manwaring.
Will Lady Susan get her comeuppance? Will Frederica be forced to do her duty, or will she be allowed to follow her heart? Will the scales ever fall from the eyes of Reginald or the hapless Sir James? Will Lord Manwaring ever speak? Will his hysterical wife calm down?
Love and Friendship, shot in Ireland, is impeccably staged. It’s a terrific period piece with the tight and lively pacing of a highly watchable modern play. Much to Stillman’s credit, his script manages to bring out the wit and nuance in Austen’s youthful epistolary novella, and what he does change, sometimes surprisingly, accords with the sensibility that informs the later works. Austen was far from prudish, and rather darker than those unfamiliar with her writing might assume. In fact, as W.H. Auden put it in his 1937 poem Letter to Lord Byron, Austen was in her way just as unsparing as the ground-breaking Modernists who, with novels like Ulysses (1922) and Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), shocked critics and the reading public with their frank treatment of sexual and religious taboos. “You could not shock her more than she shocks me,” W.H. Auden wrote; she was “An English spinster of the middle class” beside whom “Joyce seems innocent as grass.”
Stillman’s current projects include The Cosmopolitans, a proposed HBO series about American expatriates in Paris that, its pilot suggests, will evoke something of the sophisticated flavor of Metropolitan and the even more popular Barcelona. But Love and Friendship suggests that he has perhaps found another way to move his career forward. By directly entering the world of Jane Austen, he has found a particularly congenial framework for his own artistic manner. To be sure, there is no shortage of filmed versions of Austen’s books. But nor is there a shortage of Austen fans, who appear everywhere, like the college student who sat beside me on a recent two-hour flight, her nose stuck in Sense and Sensibility (1811) the entire time. With his interest in articulate, individuated characters, his keen ear for dialogue, and his smart and playful style, Stillman is just the man to bring Austen to the screen.