Monday, May 30, 2016

Movie Monday: Love & Friendship

This movie has the critics gushing with praise.  Here are some of the reasons.

     -- It is based on an early Jane Austen novella that was published only years after her death.   (The original story was titled Lady Susan but is renamed here in a "this-and-that" construction that perhaps aims to recall "Pride and Prejudice" and also "Sense and Sensibility," two Austen works of great renown.)  As such, it follows many, many film versions of already-known Austen stories.

     -- It is a comedy written and directed by Whit Stillman, a writer-director who is remembered fondly for three intelligent earlier movies from the 1990s.

     -- And it is an English costume/period piece set on sumptuous country estates and London locations reached by handsome horse-drawn carriages.

It's not a bad movie, but I wish I could say I liked it better.

Let's take these matters one by one

Story and Source Material

The Lady Susan anti-heroine is a beautiful and brilliant schemer, a penurious widow in need of a husband.  Pretty much all the characters are onto her con game, except the wealthy and charming young man for whom she has set her cap (love that phrase!).
       Susan in turn tries to arrange a marriage between her daughter, who has no discernible personality, and another wealthy young man who is so stupid it is surprising to see that he can eat with a knife and fork.  The other characters are used to advance the story of these main characters but not given much else to do.
       The whole thing is knit up in two weddings, one of which is a bawdy joke.

As I left the movie theater, I thought to myself, did Jane Austen really write that?  Turns out she did, apparently when she was about 19 years old.  I found a rundown of the book's plot online, which included many more elements and more fully realized characters.  It is not easy to give justice to subplots or minor characters in a film, of course, but a major plot development at the beginning of Austen's book does not make it into the film, and the end of the book is somewhat at odds with that of the novella.

The Filmmaker

Whit Stillman hails from an elite Northeastern family;  he was educated at the right schools and graduated from Harvard, as his father had.  An uncle of his was the sociologist who named and studied America's WASP aristocracy.  Stillman, I suspect, was saying that he "was at university" many years before those of us of less august lineage learned that we should stop saying we "went to college."  He now lives in France.

Stillman is best known for three movies about upper middle-class young people -- "Metropolitan" in 1990, "Barcelona" in 1994 and "The Last Days of Disco" in 1998.

All three films were about the discomforts and dislocations felt by people with backgrounds like Stillman's.  The movies were good ones and very well received.  I only saw one, years ago, and my dim recollection is that I didn't really "get" it.  The person I knew who liked the movies most was someone who whose background had much in common with Stillman's.

From the New York Review of Books critique of the movie and its thematic variation with the original work:

          You can only live, in Stillman’s films, if you are independent—and to be independent
          is both financial and spiritual. No wonder he was drawn to Austen. They are both
          analysts of power, and how it is distributed: and they both understand that power is
          most poignantly interrogated through narratives about women.

Maybe there is something to that old adage -- write what you know -- after all.

As suggested above, Stillman found a kindred spirit in Jane Austen, whose characters were members of England's haute bourgeoisie in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Some years ago, Stillman decided to write a screenplay based on Austen's unpublished novella.  In a New York Times interview he said this:

       I think this (book) was quite far from being a finished piece. If (Austen) were really going to
       publish it, she would have done a lot more with it. The things she did in the same period,
       they started out epistolary (the book is a series of letters among the characters) and then she
       shifted them to the dramatized novels that we know . . . .

(Interestingly, many of the movie's plot developments also are revealed in letters read by their addressees, which looks rather quaint to the contemporary viewer.  Who write letters anymore?  I doubt a current movie could use cellphone texting in a similar fashion.  We are used to seeing our friends check their cellphones every five minutes or so, but I don't think this behavior would work for a film character.)

The Ambience

Film audiences seem to have an almost unlimited appetite for English stories based in the times between the Regency and the Edwardian periods.  (Actually, if you consider the PBS miniseries on Hillary Mantel's Tudor trilogy and 2014's The Imitation Game movie about events during World War II, the historical range of interest is even greater.)

In "Love & Friendship," the settings are perfect.  The weather is always late spring, just right for scenes of outdoor walks.  The costumes are immaculate, and the women's hairdos are rendered with great precision by curling irons that had yet to be invented.  The fine horse-drawn carriages trundle along pristine streets in London, where sewers only began to be constructed in the late 18th century; in fact, there were no horse toilets back then, and the streets were dusty to muddy as well.  Stately music illuminates the scene changes, and the fast-paced dialogue is even more wordy than than you would expect to find in an Aaron Sorkin script.


Again, I never read the book on which this movie is based.   But even stipulating the creator's admiration of Jane Austen, I have to say that the movie doesn't seem like something she would write.

Austen was quite critical of people and produced a number of unlikeable or silly characters -- Wickham, Mr. Lucas, Mrs. Bennett and Lady de Bourgh in "Pride and Prejudice," for starters -- who rendered themselves unlikeable or silly by their actions and not by the reactions of others to them.  Her admirable characters -- including Elizabeth Bennett, the heroine of the same book -- also are revealed by their actions and not because they have the right enemies.

By these measures, "Love & Friendship" is pretty to watch and has entertaining, often laugh-out-loud dialogue.  But its overall tone is a little flat.

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