Has anyone ever explored the idea, a’la the much written-about Pixar theory, that all of Whit Stillman’s characters are simply reincarnated versions of one another, and therefore set in the same universe? Of course, Audrey Rouget appears in both Metropolitan and The Last Days of Disco. But if it was to be taken further, in that case, Love & Friendship is the beginning of the universe we’ve been privileged to see thus far, before Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale) became club-hopping college graduate Charlotte in the dying days of Studio 54’s heyday (The Last Days of Disco) and then part of New York’s debutante scene (Metropolitan), before regenerating as the overzealous and imaginative Violet (Damsels in Distress).
Lady Susan is not strictly a Stillman creation. The film is based on Jane Austen’s novella of the same name, but the combination of the two couldn’t seem more natural. Stillman is well versed in comedies of manners about eccentrics that don’t quite belong in their own decade.The debutantes in Metropolitan bemoan the end of rarefied tradition with the balls that are now broadcast on television, consumed as popular entertainment. Violet exhibits a particular penchant for tap dancing as a treatment for depression, and favours old-school social mores and dressing. Here, Lady Susan is a quick-witted and penniless widow who, outside usual Stillman tradition, belongs in the future instead of the past. She’s taken up residence at her in-laws’ estate, trying to play matchmaker for her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark), who she describes as “the greatest simpleton on earth”, while trying to charm an unsuspecting and wealthy man of her own. Of course, she leaves a trail of disaster in her wake.
Delivered by anyone else, Lady Susan’s frequent and riotous insults – justifying everything from stinginess with “since there’s friendship involved the paying of wages would be an insult to us both” and flirtatiousness with “if she were to be jealous she shouldn’t have married such a charming man” – would be sure to result in disdain from the audience. But if there’s anything to be guaranteed in a Stillman film apart from such mannered and intelligent rudeness, it’s a delightful performance. Lady Susan’s biting charm is played to perfection with self-awareness by Kate Beckinsale, known between Stillman films for the likes of the long-forgotten geekboy fare like the Underworld movies and Van Helsing, as well as a wonderful turn as Ava Gardiner in The Aviator. Love & Friendship is almost a homecoming for her.
But like all of Stillman’s previous work, the world is filled with similarly colourful characters, who trade verbal barbs freely and confidently with always a tinge of neuroses. As if also imported from The Last Days of Disco-iverse, Chloe Sevigny appears as Lady Susan’s American confidante Alicia, who is married to a distinctly uptight Stephen Fry. Her union to such a rigid figure is another source of disdain for Lady Susan – in one scene, she describes him as “too old to be governable, too young to die”. But Fry, who is one of the many such eccentrics that populate the bright, lush diorama Stillman creates, helps bring the levity to the piece that elevates it above conventional and outdated period drama into something delightfully fresh and urgent. I wonder what Lady Susan would make of 2016.