Just back from an early evening showing of Love & Friendship, based mainly on Jane Austen’s “Lady Susan” – who is the title character (played with delicious archness by Kate Beckinsale). It is interesting (and I will get back to this point) that in adverts Chloë Sevigny shares top billing.
There are several decisive scenes in which the two ladies don’t so much as scheme, but rely upon the other to bolster flagging spirits when schemes don’t seem to be going as well as hoped. For instance Mrs. Johnson (Sevigny) has an older husband (Stephen Fry) who just isn’t giving in to gout and the grave as quickly as his young wife might wish.
There’s an obvious backstory that we never quite learn – the dreadful treatment Lady Susan has given her (obligingly dead) husband may include infidelity or simply ‘neglect’, but nothing is specifically mentioned. That her daughter is named Frederica and her in-laws have a son Frederick leads one to believe the two were named for the not-too-lamented Mr. Vernon.
Also referred to time and again – and, to the film’s detriment, hardly seen and not at all heard – is the “dashing” Lord Mainwaring (Lochlann O’Mearáin). An additional ten or fifteen minutes, at the Mainwaring estate, laying out the events that caused the eventual ejection of Lady Susan would have been most welcome. More especially to allow viewers to see what Lady Susan saw: a lover worth scheming for although he was a married man.
Perhaps when it comes out on streaming video (a main title is emblazoned with the Amazon logo), a “director’s cut” will give a bit more. The mutual attraction of Lord and Lady would have helped the audience in rooting for the success of the Lady’s plan. Everyone loves a villainess.
The machinations of Lady Susan are not quite as blatantly devilish as those of the Marquise de Merteuil. Austen may have had a passing familiarity with Les liaisons dangereuses (published in 1782) thanks to cousin Eliza de Feuillide, who, with her impeccable French, could have come across the novel. Whit Stillman, the film’s writer/director seems to have lent the film a French texture (especially in some costumes) but could have pushed the edge in order to give the film and its (anti-) heroine that tad more sharpness. Like Jane Austen, Stillman kept sex behind the scenes, but a little smoldering attraction would have been welcomed.
The sexual rivalry of Valmont and Merteuil allowed for letters of confession and letters tipping their hands regarding future schemes. In Love & Friendship those confidences are given to two women who esteem each other – though we never quite learn why. Mrs. Johnson’s husband keeps threatening to ship his American wife back to America if she continues to see Lady Susan; still, even at the film’s end, he hasn’t moved her out of England and she hasn’t cut ties with Lady Susan.
Given the convoluted emotional ties between Lady Susan and Lord Mainwaring, which (spoiler alert:) evidently becomes a menage a trois, I began to embellish Lady Susan’s fictional story with one only too well-known: the menage in the Duke of Devonshire’s household. A husband with two wives; here, a wife with two husbands.
Speculation as to whether there is meant to be some “chemistry” between Lady Susan and her confidant Mrs. Johnson is an undertone that may be just me reading a bit of “history” into Stillman’s film (the Duchess of Devonshire and Lady Elizabeth Foster). But the ladies rather relish the idea of being together once Mr. Johnson kicks the bucket. Perhaps she would be allowed in to the Mainwaring menage. And remember that double-billing I mentioned at the top of this blog post.
Viewers are also left to wonder if Frederica Vernon (Morfydd Clark) just happened to capture her mother’s ex, Reginald deCourcey (Xavier Samuel) – or, if she has a bit more of her mother in her than either would care to admit. I, for one, would like to think that young Frederica saw and got the man she wanted. She does succeed, like her mother, by moving into the household of her future lover.
End credits gave the clue that a behind the scenes featurette was made – so maybe some of the intentions will be made clearer. (I found a short one on youtube.)
- extra: Beckinsale on “Popcorn, with Peter Travers” [over 17 minutes]
Watching Love & Friendship was like spending the evening at the theater. The ‘feel’ of the film is highly theatrical (though not nearly as stylized as it could have been; viz, The Draftsman’s Contract, another film about sexual connivers). The movement of the actors across a room, down a passage, or up a staircase is slow and deliberate, providing time to show off gowns and location shots. The many footmen and maids seemed like so many stagehands, closing doors or removing clothes. Some viewers complained of the rapid conversational style, but I did not find it to be unintelligible – just in contrast to everyone’s slow pace, as if confined to a stage. The “introductions” to the characters, like a period handbill, were quite funny, as in “Sir James Martin: Her unintended”.
And “the stage” is the parting thought I’ll leave with. Late in the film the sound track introduces the exquisite trio from Così fan tutte, Soave sia il vento (though a short piece, the film abruptly truncates it by cutting out the middle) – Mozart’s moment of tranquility in an opera about shifting partners and the testing of (untrue) lovers. The trio reappears in the end credits. Knowledge of the opera, and performance ambiguities, added to the intrigue of this quiet film, leaving me with the impression that there’s more going on beneath its shiny surface. One almost wishes Stillman choose instead the subtitle of Austen’s juvenile “Love and Freindship” and called his film “Deceived in Freindship and Betrayed in Love”. (And, yes, Austen had “ie” and “ei” spelling problems.) It would be interesting to pick up Stillman’s novel, Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon is Vindicated but I’ll have to settle for Austen’s original (which I deliberately did NOT read before seeing the film).