There’s a scene in American director Whit Stillman’s debut Metropolitan (1990) where his Manhattan debutantes start riffing on Jane Austen. Eventually her detractor Tom (Edward Clements) – a middle-class kid who’s fallen in with a self-styled socialite rat pack, whose story was drawn heavily from Stillman’s own – admits he’s never actually read any of Austen’s work. “You don’t have to have read a book to have an opinion on it,” he says with conviction.
Some critics considered Metropolitan a contemporary take on Mansfield Park, though the influence of Austen’s astute comedies of manners can be seen throughout Stillman’s oeuvre – an idiosyncratic body of work that is obsessed with social etiquette and moral certitude.
Just don’t tell Stillman that. “Comedy of manners” is a term he says he detests, preferring comedy of morals (if he must). “These are character comedies, very profound, not at all superficial and very moral… Unfortunately the term ‘manners’ has degenerated into how to fold a napkin.”
Why am I surprised that Stillman comes across just like one of his characters – a contradiction of bored erudition and facetiousness, humourless self-importance and droll wit. When I ask about his long-running fascination with Austen’s work, he can only sigh. “I mean, what can I say? I actually can’t answer that question. It’s self-evident.”
The correlation between Austen and Stillman is made patent now in his fifth feature Love and Friendship, an adaptation of Austen’s posthumously published epistolary novel Lady Susan. Where the moral sincerity of Stillman’s characters has always seemed anachronistic, here Lady Susan Vernon’s transgressions set her apart from her stuffy milieu. “I think everyone of quality is a bit anachronistic,” says Stillman.
Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) exists in a different moral orbit to Austen’s virtuous heroines. Seeking husbands for herself and her daughter – for motives fiscal rather than romantic – she’s wonderfully unscrupulous in her scheming and sophistry, playing off the dim-witted Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett), besotted Reginald DeCourcy (Australia’s Xavier Samuel) and dangerous liaison Lord Manwarring (Lochlann O’Mearáin).
Part of Stillman’s appeal for his fans – and frustration for his detractors – is that you can never quite tell who he’s poking fun at. Of course, Stillman takes issue with calling his work satire. “I really don’t believe in satire, which is the tearing of flesh. I leave people’s flesh alone,” he says glibly.
Despite his protestations, it’s hard to see Love and Friendship as anything but satire, even if it’s affectionately rendered. Stillman has created a knowing adaptation, where his and Austen sensibilities come together neatly with nimble humour and perceptive social observation. Without ever rupturing the 18th century setting, Stillman is well versed in the costume drama’s conventions and winks slyly at its contemporary audience.
“Aspects of the form developed as we were making the film, but it always had to be quite scathing comedy because of the content of the story and because of the sort of commentary that Alicia and Susan like to make – which is quite funny and extremely cold. We actually tried to warm it up… trying to have some virtue and warm comedy to go along with these two very sharp ladies.”
Love and Friendship reunites Beckinsale with Chloë Sevigny (playing her American ally Alicia Johnson), who first appeared together in Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco (1998). Now his best-known work, it failed to recoup its budget and landed Stillman in what he later referred to as “director’s prison” – a cell he only broke out of with collegiate comedy Damsels in Distress in 2011. Stillman has been pondering Love and Friendship for so long that he’d initially envisaged Elizabeth Hurley in the lead.
Nowadays, the director says he prefers to make films on a small budget. “I found that my favourite shoots were the ones where we had the tightest string and the shortest schedule… It really concentrates the mind.”
While Love and Friendship was made on a shoestring for a costume drama, Stillman says he found it was harder to recreate the Manhattan debutante balls and disco scenes of the 1980s than it was to do 18th century British society.
“There are all sorts of resources and expertise you can call upon,” he explains. “We kept increasing the costumes budget, and the costumes were quite lavish, although our costume designer – who’s wonderful – thought it was very tight… We’re shooting in the kind of back lot for 18th century. The castles and great houses outside Dublin are exactly the right look for it.”
After immersing himself in this world onset, Stillman isn’t ready to depart just yet. He’s currently putting the finishing touches on his own novelisation of the story, to be published later this year. He riles when I mention the Austen revival currently taking place with The Austen Project, where six authors have been paired with each major novel to transpose them into the present day.
“I really hate all that. When I read about all that it really depressed me. It seemed so insincere to do that as a commercial project. I mean, I really do this out of total sincerity – even if it is ridiculous comedy.”
‘Barbed Whit’ was published in The Big Issue #516 in July, 2016.