Love & Friendship ★★★½

[7]

Whit Stillman operates rather unapologetically within the Comedy of Manners. Like Eric Rohmer, Stillman understands and respects the constrictive social codes that govern urbane, civilized behavior, even if and especially when those codes result in characters taking circuitous linguistic routes toward their desires. Aristocratic bearing, and the hurdles and detours it erects within polite society, are not just antiquated customs or signs of repression -- although repression in this case may serve as a virtue. It is an ethos, a set of shared rules for a game that everyone has tacitly agreed to play. Inasmuch as one recognizes the social world as a set of chess moves, one attains a not insignificant degree of power.

Not only does Love & Friendship use Jane Austen's early, unpublished novella as an opportunity to examine the cunning of women against a backdrop of wealthy but hapless noblemen. The extent to which the book, Lady Susan, is a blunter instrument than Austen's masterpieces only helps to throw social artifice into high relief, which Stillman plays for sharp verbal wit. Most significantly. L&F manages to depict its flawed characters with extreme prejudice while at the same refraining from judgment, particularly that smug, banal judgment of the present upon the past. It just isn't there.

Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale), for example, is a Machiavellian manipulator. She makes cruel decisions for her daughter Frederica (Morffyd Clark), happily seduces men like Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) and the married Lord Manwaring (Lochlann O'Mearáin) for money and sport, and (barely) conceals her machinations behind a veil for feigned ingenuousness. In typical narrative terms, and certainly according to the bourgeois morality that organizes most contemporary films, Lady Susan would be the villain, plain and simple -- Erica Kane in a corset.

However, Stillman and Beckinsale are capable of showing us not only how Lady Susan's scheming is a matter of survival. but also how, for good or ill, it makes her modern. She recognizes the Victorian strictures of comportment (especially female activity) as being a performance, and so long as she is broadly perceived as fulfilling that role, she can have almost anything she wants. Where almost every character remains a slave to decorum, Susan says and does everything she has to, but puts just enough passive-aggressive English on it to signal to those around her -- especially her daughter and her sister-in-law Catherine (Emma Greenwell) -- that she is utterly insincere. Nevertheless, the rules of society, to which these ladies hold themselves far more stringently than she, prohibit any direct confrontation.

Again, like Rohmer, Stillman has mastered the deceptively placid double-speak of a society that is not repressed per se, but has agreed to hold itself together with the glue of repression. The visual style of L&F echoes this double consciousness, with costumes and carriages that pinpoint the period but are just a bit too clean and new, with colors whose brightness ever so subtly betrays their 21st century manufacture. This is not anachronism, cheap or otherwise. (Stillman is not Sofia Coppola.) Nor is it a joke at the past's expense, by any means. Rather, it is a tribute to the wisdom of the past, by way of demonstrating its sophistication. Stillman asks us to relate our own mores with those from history, not as an exercise in present-tense triumphalism but instead as one might explain chess to a child by comparing it to checkers.

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