Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship” (2016)

Notable Festivals: Sundance

From his 1990 debut, METROPOLITAN, to 2011’s DAMSELS IN DISTRESS and beyond, director Whit Stillman has built a celebrated career exploring the idiosyncrasies and quirks of Old Money America through a series of original films produced within the independent sphere.  His unique writerly flair enables him to express his insights into this rarified, slightly-stale world in a profoundly funny way that’s also quite accessible to larger audiences.  It seems natural, then, that his fascination with the aristocracy and literature would dovetail quite effortlessly with the writings of 18th-century author Jane Austen.  He found himself inspired by her novella “Lady Susan”, an obscure minor work that Austen had penned in 1794.  Written as a series of letters issued back and forth concerning a young widow’s attempts to secure her station by remarrying to a rich nobleman, the novella appealed to Stillman as the slightest of narrative frameworks onto which he could graft his own distinct material.  That material became 2016’s LOVE & FRIENDSHIP, the kind of buttoned-up comedy of manners he was renowned for, albeit saved from criticisms of redundancy by virtue of its distinct period setting and lavish costume design.

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP serves as a reunion on two fronts– one being Stillman’s second collaboration with Amazon Studios following their production of his 2014 television pilot, THE COSMOPOLITANS, and the other being a reunion for Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny, the two leads from his 1998 feature, THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO.  LOVE & FRIENDSHIP proves that time has not dulled the sharp chemistry between these two ladies, each delivering a bitingly-witty performance with precise comedic timing.  Beckinsale plays the Widow Vernon, the eponymous Lady Susan of Austen’s novella– at once both glamorously aloof and deeply insecure about her social standing.   Beckinsale’s icy elegance is the perfect fit for a woman who plots and schemes her way through England’s high society, masterfully manipulating allegiances and affections in her dogged pursuit to land a rich bachelor that will secure the financial future of both her and her adult daughter.  Sevigny plays her closest confidante, a droll American expat named Alicia Johnson whose biggest fear in life is getting sent back to her native Connecticut.  The remainder of Stillman’s cast consists of entirely new collaborators, boasting the talents of performers like Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Tom Bennett, and Stephen Fry.  Samuel plays the handsome suitor Reginald DeCourcy, the primary target of the Widow Vernon’s pursuits.  Greenwell plays his sister and Lady Susan’s sister-in-law, Catherine DeCourcy Vernon.  Bennett steals the show as Sir James Martin, another wealthy suitor whose awkwardness and smug obliviousness knows no bounds.  Fry appears in what amounts to a glorified cameo as Mr. Johnson, a relation of Alicia’s and a voice of authority to the younger cast members.  

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Stillman’s films have never quite been regarded for their visual dynamism; indeed, his technical aesthetic makes it quite clear he places a higher value on the screenplay and character development.  That’s not to say he’s a slouch in the cinematography department– on the contrary, his images are every bit as formal and buttoned-up as his subjects, eschewing elaborate camerawork and stylistic flash in order to better hone in on pure character.  Stillman and his cinematographer, Richard Van Oosterhout, supplement his well-lit and deliberately-composed static shots with a modest array of crane, pan, and dolly moves that suggest an approach that’s more ambitious in the context of Stillman’s previous work, while nonetheless feeling relatively sedate compared to the work of other filmmakers in his generation.  He does, however, employ a modest amount of stylistic flair in the form of introductory character vignettes presented in the style of portraiture, as well as the overlaying of onscreen text during scenes in which characters are reading aloud, rendered in an elegant handwritten script that evidences Stillman’s love for the literary and the sheer visual appeal of the printed word itself.  Stillman’s straightforward aesthetic is reinforced by the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, although it’s a bit unclear to this author whether the image originated on film or digital– if there’s a grain structure, it’s very fine, and the $3 million production budget might have been too modest to allow for a celluloid acquisition considering what was no doubt the hefty (but necessary) expense of Anna Rackard’s lavish production design.  Stillman also brings back two key post-production collaborators, his editor Sophie Corra and his longtime composer Mark Suozzo, who teams up with Benjamin Esdraffo to deliver a stately, baroque score appropriate to the setting at hand.

The source material may be Austen’s, but the final product is undeniably Stillman’s, who brings his artistic signatures to bear in every facet of the film– right down to the onscreen credit he shares with multiple collaborators in the formalistic opening titles.  While his previous films have examined the moneyed leisure class as a contemporary caste in decline, LOVE & FRIENDSHIP finds them in their heyday, blissfully unaware of their growing irrelevance in a fast-modernizing world.  After a six year hiatus from cinema screens, Stillman reminded audiences of his indie cred by debuting LOVE & FRIENDSHIP at the Sundance Film Festival.  Its warm reception by critics and strong box office take ($18 million over $3) would easily make LOVE & FRIENDSHIP Stillman’s highest-profile work since THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO.  Whereas many filmmakers find their careers re-energized by exploring outside their wheelhouse, Stillman would rejuvenate his by delving even deeper within it, and thus reassert the value of his unique voice in the realm of American independent cinema.  

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Sony Pictures.

Credits:

Produced by: Whit Stillman, Lauranne Bourrachot, Katie Holly

Written by: Whit Stillman

Cinematography by: Richard Van Oosterhout

Production Design by: Anna Rackard

Edited by: Sophie Corra

Music by: Mark Suozzo & Benjamin Esdraffo