While it may not reach as many audiences or become quite as engrained in popular culture, Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship is the most thorough reinvention of Jane Austen for the screen since the 1995 television version of Pride and Prejudice. So influential has Andrew Davies adaptation been over the last twenty years that it has pervaded virtually every facet of Austen fandom, which is perhaps why Stillman resorted to a piece of juvenilia – the epistolary novel Lady Susan – and renamed it after another piece of juvenilia – the short story Love & Friendship – as if to reimagine Austen’s canon by approaching it from the peripheries. It’s a canny move, since there’s no other work in Austen’s oeuvre quite like Lady Susan, which tells the story of an intelligent, eloquent, manipulative widow – here played by Kate Beckinsale – who with the help of her best friend Alicia Johnson – played by Chloe Sevigny – devises a scheme to marry both herself and her daughter off to eligible suitors. As Austen’s one and only epistolary novel, it’s distinguished by the most outspoken, unabashed and extroverted female voice in her entire oeuvre – a highly literate, flamboyant character who, time and again, and in a myriad of ways, refuses to be talked down or silenced. Forced to subsist entirely on her own “captivating deceit, vivacity and lively intelligence,” she’s the most cosmopolitan, metropolitan and urbane of Austen’s female protagonists – the one character who really feels as if her true home is in the city – and her airy, acerbic, playful irreverence is of a piece with the sharpest and most unapologetically satirical moments of Northanger Abbey, albeit with an even greater joie de vie and unashamed abandon, exuding the unashamed lust for for life that is perhaps only really possible in a great writer’s juvenilia.
If this is one of Austen’s earliest works, it comes at a quite late stage in Stillman’s career – a career that seems all the longer for having had such distended periods between releases. Yet Austen has always been integral to Stillman’s visions of the decaying New York Upper Crust, which also felt constrained and circumscribed by a certain late Regency vibe – Metropolitan contains several extended discussions of Mansfield Park – and yet the great revelation of Love & Friendship is that once Stillman actually inhabits the Regency period from within the result is more expansive and elastic than anything that could have been imagined from his career to date. Where Damsels in Distress was his most pointedly and programmatically stilted film – almost a dead end in its stylised perfection – Love & Friendship feels as if it is being invented and improvised scene by scene, pairing the freshness of Austen’s juvenilia with the freshness of an Austen story we’ve never seen transplanted to the big screen, to create a film that feels even younger and more buoyant than Stillman’s earliest features. In part, that’s because of how well Beckinsale and Sevigny work under Stillman’s direction – this is very much the spiritual sequel to The Last Days of Disco – but it also comes down to Stillman’s decision to present Austen as a late eighteenth-century conversationalist rather than the high Romantic she has so often become in the wake of Colin Firth’s ascent from the lake at Pemberley.
Among other things, that makes for one of the funniest adaptations of Austen every adapted to the big screen. Indulging and luxuriating in male inanity and chauvinist idiocy more than any of Austen’s other novels, Lady Susan shares its protagonist’s “uncanny understanding of men’s natures”- a playful contempt for the male species in which every effort at masculine expostulation or exposition is set off by a myriad of zingers, gags and one-liners that often feel more like a Monty Python sendup of the literary canon than an adaptation of the literary canon. With scenes that often function more like sketches – many are only a few lines long – the plot becomes almost incidental, subsumed into a series of hasty, spontaneous, improvisational encounters that sit brilliantly against the staid Regency backdrops and often make this feel more like an adaptation of Austen and Lady Susan’s shared precocity and perspicacity than anything else. While the standard blueprint for Austen films certainly leaves room for lavish interiors and gorgeous landscapes, this manic, irreverent energy tends to leave all those period fixtures behind in favour of a much more fluid, dynamic and emergent sense of space that frequently recalls The Last Days of Disco in the way in which cloistered, cramped and conspiratorial chambers suddenly and spectacularly slide into expansive vistas at a moment’s notice. creating a shifting, vertiginous tone that leaves room for comic possibilities in even the most apparently serious and sententious of situations.
Buried in all that sparkling frivolity is one of Austen’s greatest affirmations of the resilience of friendship between women – the novella’s mantra is that “only be friends can one truly known,” and there’s no other female friendship or relationship in Austen’s body of work that is carried on such equal terms, or in which the two parties are in such sympathy and synergy, as that between Lady Susan and Alicia Johnson. Whether they become friends because of their utter parity in attitude, wit and intelligence, or whether it is friendship that creates and fosters that parity in the first place, their conspiratorial moments of communion – often huddled in corridors and carriages – have a similar levelling function to the disco floor in Last Days, which is perhaps why it always feels as if they’re on the verge of heading out to some magnificent event only to always realise that it is their shared, breathless anticipation that is their real reprieve from the demands of marriage and aristocratic life. As a result, the whole film has something of a vestibular quality – Lady Susan and Alicia Johnson are nearly always on the cusp of coming or going, never still – which is only enhanced by the fact that Alicia is American in Stillman’s version, creating the additional possibility that her splenetic husband, played by Stephen Fry, will up and send her back to the United States if she dares to get too out of hand. In the original novel, Johnson is English, not American, and yet the transformation feels utterly natural here, not only because of how perfectly it fits with this cosmopolitan, metropolitan, global version of Austen, but because of how naturally it syncs up with Whitman’s own New York Regency, and all the antecedents to Sevigny’s Austenesque American attitude that have percolated throughout the earlier stages of his career.
While other Austen novels – and adaptations – may occasionally reach the comic heights of Lady Susan – Emma Woodhouse is her nearest relative – what makes this piece of juvenilia so striking – and perhaps so unpublishable – is that its protagonist’s foibles are never domesticated by way of a moral lesson or redeemed by some definitive reversal of character or change of heart. True to that spirit, Whitman keeps up the irreverent brevity until the very end – the film is barely eighty minutes long – with Lady Susan’s final decision – to marry her daughter to her own preferred lover – occurring as rapidly and economically as all her previous decisions, with the result that there is no time for it to be glossed over as a moral triumph or a climactic lesson, nor time for us to congeal it into some kind of definitive final statement as to Lady Susan’s supposed amorality or selfishness either. Instead, both the novel and the adaptation casually and irreverently collapse self-interest and moral obligation, just as Lady Susan’s most consummate gift is her ability to get what she wants while always speaking from within the decorum and expectations of what is expected and required from her as a dutiful widow and mother. Mercilessly advancing her own agenda while daring anyone to impute that she is straying one inch from the requirements of her mourning – she invokes her inviolable respectability as a widow with every second breath – her ultimate transgression is that she behaves much like a man, profiting from the system in the most audacious and outrageous manner while simply claiming to be subservient to its wishes.
As might be expected, that determination to inhabit the system with the same entitlement and jouissance as a man produces a will to joy, as well as a certain air of fantasy – the fantasy of a world in which female wit and camaraderie are never contoured or circumscribed by the dictates of male wisdom, if only because none of the men really have very much wisdom to impart. In that latter sense, in particular, Lady Susan is profoundly different from most of Austen’s other works – not only are there no real beacons of fatherly wisdom here, but there are few fatherly figures full stop. Moreover, instead of restoring them through romance, as occurs, say, in Sense and Sensibility, Austen instead provides Lady Susan with a series of significantly younger suitors, all of whom prove utterly impotent in the face of her wit and wisdom. Even the most handsome, compelling and sympathetic characters turn out to be powerless, just as even the most pompous protestations are powerless in the face of Stillman’s rapid-fire editing, which always sees him cutting just before any exchange becomes too stultified or sedimented in a nostalgic version of the past, or the nostalgic versions of heroic maleness that have become so prominent in the wake of 1995’s Mr. Darcy. In particular, Stillman likes to cut just before living rooms, drawing rooms and other tableaux of Regency sociability have had time to compose themselves, with these odd cuts – almost jump cuts – usually corresponding to the entry or exit of Lady Susan herself, who has an uncanny knack for installing herself in any space at a moment’s notice. Whenever she arrives or departs, the mise-en-scene suddenly feels present, alive, contemporary, not in the sense of being set in the current moment so much as giving a small glimpse of what it might have been like to encounter Austen in the original, for the first time, before all the preconceptions handed down by the literary canon, let alone the most recent wave of Austen mania. And it’s that freshness that makes Love & Friendship as magical as it is estranging, as Stillman offers up an adaptation that implodes Austen from the inside, discovering a version of her genius that would be horrified at what she has become in the last twenty years, but also comic, joyful and resilient enough to make a different kind of case for herself as well.