Jane Austen Meets Machiavelli

Love & Friendship  A film by Whit Stillman, with Kate Beckinsale, Chloe Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Tom Bennett. ****1/2

Love & Friendship centers on a single character—Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale)—and she controls the action the way a great conductor directs an orchestra.  She is not only in almost every scene but is the focus of those scenes, and Kate Beckinsale is such a rare beauty that we love looking at her.  If she just sat there it would be enough.

This is a movie about sex and sexual attraction in which people almost never touch; they certainly don’t embrace or kiss.  They converse.  Lady Susan conducts her personal matchmaking the way Sun Tzu conducted the art of war, and we have no doubt she’s going to win; we’re just not sure what she wants.  When we finally discover that, it’s stunning, also somehow delightful; we’ve seen an artist at work.  It wasn’t—as people say in movies today—that she had them at hello.  She had them when the idea crossed her mind.

The true artist in this case is the great Whit Stillman, auteur and director of Metropolitan and Barcelona.  I don’t know why it took him so long to discover the 18th century drawing room comedy; it’s his perfect vehicle.  Love & Friendship is based on an early Jane Austen novella named Lady Susan, and is set in 1790; it seems more like Restoration Comedy than like a work of the 19th century.  Austen in her juvenilia apparently mocked the 18th century novels that preceded her, and Lady Susan seems in that vein, a story of romantic intrigue.  People are fighting like cats and dogs, they might as well be snarling and eye gouging, but the whole thing is completely civil.  Only in one character, a scorned wife, do we ever see a hair out of place.

The action would be even more puzzling except that Lady Susan has a friend and confidant named Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny).  She’s another beauty, and we love watching them together, but there’s no particular feeling we’re getting Lady Susan’s true intentions.  I had the feeling she would slit Alicia’s throat if the woman got in her way, or snatch up her husband if she felt like it.  Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry) knows of Lady Susan’s reputation, and threatens to move to Connecticut if Alicia keeps seeing her (“You might get scalped!” Lady Susan says).  In her annoyance at his interference she wishes for her friend the same independence she has, i.e., widowhood. “May Mr. Johnson’s next gouty attack end more favorably.”

Even Lady Susan’s in-laws, with whom she’s staying, are aware of her reputation.  Reginald Decourcy (Xavier Samuel), her sister in law’s brother, and a likely match himself, exclaims it when he first hears of her arrival.  “She’s the most accomplished flirt in all England.” He nevertheless immediately falls for her, despite the fact that she’s considerably older and a widow.  We know he’s got the hots for her because we see them walking around the lanes of their country estate, talking.  That’s the rough equivalent of heavy petting in this society.

We’re stunned to hear that Lady Susan has a daughter of marrying age, a young woman still in school named Frederica (Morfydd Clark).  My wife thought Lady Susan was supposed to be roughly 40 (Beckinsale is 42), so that would allow her to have such a daughter, who looks about 16.  She too is adorable, but just a pawn in her mother’s plans.  “I’m not so self-indulgent as to want to wallow in the companionship of a child.”  Marriage for Lady Susan isn’t about love, or even affection, or good standing, or reputation.  “He has offered you the one thing of value he has to give,” she says to her daughter.  “His income.”

Into this situation steps the hapless and stone dumb but completely lovable Sir James Martin, played brilliantly by Tom Bennett.  If there is one characterization completely dependent on acting in this movie, it is this one, and Bennett, in every scene in which he appears, steals the show.  There’s something very Whit Stillman about this character, like some of the clueless preppy guys in Metropolitan.  For much of the movie Lady Susan seems to be trying to marry her daughter to this older man, and we understand the young woman’s anxiety, which borders on horror.

That doesn’t come to pass, not, I would guess, because Lady Susan fails, but because her scheme was more nefarious all along.  We keep wondering why she isn’t more interested in her own romantic life, and actually she is; the one man she’s interested in is married to someone else, but that’s a trifling obstacle in Lady Susan’s world.  I don’t remember the man speaking a line in the movie, but has one smug expression that tells us everything.  It’s one of those situations where less is more.

The whole movie is like that.  It’s all conversation and beautiful scenes and costumes; it’s expertly and hilariously put together; I knew it was to last 90 minutes but it seemed to end in half that.  It was shot, apparently, in 26 days.

It’s a minor film, I suppose, about a trivial situation, but it’s a small gem.  The script is brilliant, the cast superb, and Stillman his usual dry understated self.  Go see it.