A prominent bishop dressed in gardener’s garb is curtly dismissed from attending a stuffy socialite party in Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. That same bishop, however, is greeted openly when he returns to the door, this time dressed in his formal clergy attire, recognized as an integral component to this exclusive society. Entry to the hegemonic elite is often a matter of looking the part. That just about sums up every Whit Stillman film, dating back to his 1990 debut Metropolitan to his new film, the exceedingly clever Love & Friendship. Exposing the superficialities of the privileged few is among the chief thematic liquors in Stillman’s bitter cocktails and his new film is no different. Here, he attends to those concerns with a businessman’s acumen, with the title’s ampersand functioning as a signpost for what’s to come: compassion and cordiality are treated with cutthroat disregard, where climbing the social ladder requires the sharpest and most stubborn wit.
That’s not to suggest that Love & Friendship isn’t a comedy. No, it very much relies on Stillman’s bon mots and clever exposure of the elite’s petty concerns and trivialities. And Stillman clues you in right from the start, inundating the audience with an opening sequence that visits all of the film’s prominent characters, offering text that illustrates their relationship to the film’s central character, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale). It’s an overwhelming bit of humor in what slyly demonstrates the film’s tonal lunacy. The complicated network of friendships and blood ties become second nature as the film progresses, but it should be noted that this opening segment of rapid information is an especially sophisticated play on Stillman’s part – there’s no test at the end and he surely does not expect his audience to memorize and recall this vast array of characters, but it does establish a tempo that demands its audience be on high alert; it’s smart.
Stillman settles into establishing the film’s dramatic components, whereby the widowed, unmourning, and promiscuous Susan attempts to find a suitor for both herself and her daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark). In every one of Susan’s exchanges, whether it be with her only friend, an American, Alicia (Chloë Sevigny), her sister-in-law, Catherine (Emma Greenwell), or the object of her muted affection, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), an acrobatic tête-à-tête occurs whereby Susan seeks to dominate the conversation with her unyielding and narrow worldview. It’s a marvel, with Beckinsale’s performance capturing a socialite’s every attempt at maintaining her distinguished position with incredible comic bravado.
There is, however, an inescapable slightness to the material that prevents Stillman from reaching the heights of Metropolitan or even Damsels in Distress. The formal embellishments are there, with Stillman demonstrating some of his most refined comic touches to date –it makes sense that a writer/director with such verbose tendencies would find compelling ways to make the written word come alive, particularly during sequences that involve characters reading letters. And along with Beckinsale, the cadre of supporting performances are vibrant, with Tom Bennett sure to turn some heads for his incredible (if not one-note) riff of Steve Carell’s Michael Scott. But despite what you may come to expect from period pieces of this sort, Love & Friendship is not a particularly attractive film. Belgian DP Richard Van Oosterhout doesn’t imbue images with any particular gravitas, his colors possessing a flat and muted quality. It’s an unfortunate reality that the film, as delightful as it is to the ear, doesn’t possess a single image of note beyond Chloë Sevigny’s heaving chest.
This regression – Doug Emmet’s photography for Damsels in Distress was a gift – does take its toll on the material, if only because every other component is so fine-tuned. The cadence of the dialogue, the singularity in its performances, and the formal risks that Stillman makes for the kind of smart summer counter-programming makes the ensuing tsunami of blockbuster “entertainment” all the more easier to bear.