Whit Stillman Does Austen: The “Love and Friendship” trailer

Jane Austen’s epistolary novelette Lady Susan is a famous literary curiosity: possibly influenced by Choderlos de Laclos’ scandalous Les Liaisons Dangereuses, it is Austen’s lone treatment of an anti-heroine, a scheming, cynical femme fatale whose wicked voice commands the pages and conveys most of the narrative.  I actually once subjected a girlfriend to an oral reading of it, in which I surely strove to match the cadences of Glenn Close and the rest of the cast of Dangerous Liaisons.

It’s a literary curiosity understandably overlooked thus far in cinema– too short, too difficult to “translate” onto screen– but now cult “yuppie” writer-director Whit Stillman, championed by Steve Sailer as a sort of WASP Woody Allen, is attempting it–albeit under a title taken (minus a pedantic lexical correction) from Austen’s classically ridiculous juvenile confection Love and Freindship instead– and reuniting onscreen the female leads of his best film, The Last Days of Disco, to boot.

Alas, judging from the trailer, I fear a great disappointment.  Certainly this is a low-budget production for a period drama.  Perhaps in full it will play out with greater visual elegance, but I for one am far from attributing even to Stillman’s best work the Chardin-like elegance of Eric Rohmer (to whom Stillman has been too glibly compared).  The composition of that “lovely family portrait” certainly doens’t look like a Reynolds or a Gainsborough, or Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon.  No painter would ever paint them like that– but if that’s the whole thrust of Lady Susan’s wit, it’s not very clever.  I fear Stillman had no more of a visual idea in that shot than to instruct them to look glum for the camera.  But at least it doesn’t show evidence of the appaling low-fi digital washout that made Damsels in Distress difficult to look at.

But one expects from Stillman at least a certain level of literary polish.  As a noted enthusiast for Restoration drama, this would be a fine opportunity for Stillman at last to transcend his oddball present-day diction, an unreal hodgepodge of yuppie modernity and stagey, “literate” syntax, and attempt the fluid elegance of Austen herself.  But judging from the trailer, the comedy onscreen will attempt something more like a classic Hollywood mashup of registers (“What are these little green balls?” indeed!).

And Kate Beckinsale, bless her heart, sounds incomprehensible, despite her appropriately imposing manner.  Chloe Sevigny, though I don’t like her as a human being, is a tolerably good actress, but we’ll have to see how it works out onscreen.  It’s possible there are pleasant surprises in store: but again, Lady Susan would be a fine chance for Stillman to do something richer, instead of settling for his usual quirkiness which, with the exception of Last Days, has always resulted in less than fulfilling outcomes.

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