Whit Stillman dresses up a Jane Austen novella

Film by Jorge Ignacio Castillo


Love & Friendship
RPL Film Theatre
July 21-24

If you’re familiar with Whit Stillman’s ouvre (Metropolitan, Barcelona), it may fill you with joy to know the director dresses and behaves exactly how you’d expect. Nattily attired with a pink comb hiding in his blazer, Stillman is as clever and witty as his movies hint at.

The American director has become known for his “comedies of manners”, a simplification he detests. Stillman’s dialogue is rich and his characters are complex. Following a 13-year hiatus between Last Days of Disco (1998) and Damsels in Distress (2011), the filmmaker is picking up the pace. His latest, Love and Friendship, has become his biggest hit to date (US$ 13 million — not bad for a period piece).

Based on an obscure Jane Austen novella, Love & Friendship revolves around Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale’s best role in ages), a widow who must stretch her resources to maintain the quality of life she has become accustomed to. First, Lady Susan must ensure her teenage daughter marries an affable but dim suitor — then get a husband for herself.

While Lady Susan’s machinations are morally dubious,  one may feel inclined to give her a pass given the inherent misogyny of the Victorian era. Chloe Sevigny, Beckinsale’s partner-in-crime in Last Days of Disco, , is on hand as Alicia, her best friend and the trophy wife of an aristocrat (Stephen Fry, no less). Cut from the same cloth as Susan, Alicia is basically killing time until the old coot kicks the bucket and she gets the inheritance.

I had a terrific time eating macaroons with Stillman last month in Toronto. The filmmaker told me he had no interest in being one with the zeitgeist, and how thrilled he was over Sevigny’s and Beckinsale’s evolution as performers.

Your previous films have already been considered “Austenian”. What inspired you to finally adapt a Jane Austen story?

All Jane Austen is funny, but generally the humor is part of the romantic journey of the characters. In the case of Lady Susan [the original title], it’s mostly about being funny. Also, the novella wasn’t accessible or finished. Even though Austen wrote a clear copy of it, I think if she wanted to give it to the world, she would have put more work on it. Rather than taking some magnificent Jane Austen novel and reduce it to 90 minutes, I can take something that wasn’t quite there and put it in its right setting. Lastly, Lady Susan hadn’t been adapted before. It was a great opportunity to add to the Jane Austen bookshelf.

Why did you change the title to Love & Friendship? There isn’t much romantic love or disinterested friendship in the film.

Originally, I’d have agreed with you. But now, after working on it for so long, I do believe the title reflects the film’s content. The chances that Alicia takes to maintain her friendship with Lady Susan are extraordinary, despite her husband’s threats to send her back to Connecticut, which is a fate almost worse than death. I also think there is love in different levels: family affection, generosity of spirit, furtive love, it’s all there.

Can you describe the research process to shape the period’s aesthetics?

The fact there are so many people who love Jane Austen and this particular historical period (late 18th-century England) was a huge help. There are heaps of research. Since this was an earlier work than most of Austen publications — pre-Regency — women’s fashion could be much sexier. In terms of language, we had advisors that prevented us from using anachronisms. We did what we could to keep it within plausibility and respect the period.

How do you feel Love & Friendship is relevant today?

I’m against relevance. We can’t teach the past anything, but the past can teach us things. I don’t see the point of stating that the way society was structured in the 18th-century wasn’t right. However, truthful representation of different periods can give us insight.

What would you say is the biggest misconception about your work?

There’s too much emphasis on the class structure of the work. Because Metropolitan was my first film and it was so extreme on that matter, people viewed all the other movies the same way. Also, many use the term “comedies of manners” to describe my work. I’m not sure we know what that means anymore. I see them more as comedies of morals or identity.

Also, the idea of “comedy of manners” feels rather superficial, while your characters are actually very soulful.

Exactly. It trivializes it. Although it could be the fact words change meaning or become less significant over time.

Love & Friendship is your second project with Amazon Studios (the first one was the pilot for The Cosmopolitans). How do you describe your experience with this form of content distribution?

So far, so good. I was worried they may give our film just a short theatrical window, but they share my belief it’s a movie that needs to be seen on the big screen. I also hope to do more TV shows with them. It’s funny, I see people praising Amazon because of all the freedom they get and I never had much supervision before!

Is The Cosmopolitans going to series?

They commissioned me to write six more scripts.

How would you describe your writing routine?

Bad, inefficient. My system is to get out of the house as early as possible and head to a café without internet I can stay all morning.