It is always a kind of special event, albeit in a low key, when a new Whit Stillman film opens. He’s done only four since 1990: the WASP trilogy of Metropolitan, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco (now out in a nice boxed set) and the related but different Damsels in Distress. His new film, Love & Friendship, is being released today.
Since it is 9:00 AM as I write this I have not had the opportunity to view it but I will comment nonetheless, less to review it and more to remind people that it is out. Of course actually seeing films or reading books should not stand in the way of good criticism, which, as viewers of Metropolitan will agree, can stand apart from the source material itself.
Tom: I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way you get both the novelists’ ideas as well as the critics’ thinking. With fiction I can never forget that none of it really happened, that it’s all just made up by the author.
That said, those with the good sense to appreciate Stillman’s quirky sensibilities will probably want to see the film. Perhaps an actual review will appear in this space later, courtesy of Fenster or a co-blogger here.
Love & Friendship marks a departure of sorts for Stillman in that it is an adaptation, in this case of a short novel by Jane Austen that was unpublished in Austen’s lifetime. It’s a period piece, too, which also marks a difference from his earlier work–unless of course you wish to consider a work like Metropolitan a period piece. That film was set in a New York City of “not so long ago” and has all the archness and starchness of a bygone era.
But while the new film will be a departure in some ways it promises in others to be of a piece with his earlier work. Stillman’s films overall are restrained and mannered, very much in an 18th century sort of way. Indeed, Stillman expresses that he is very much an 18th Century Man in this recent NPR interview.
There are many many things I like about the 18th century. I like the architecture. I like the music. I like dress. I like the aspirations, many of the aspirations. I like the thought, the political thought from the period . . . I like a lot of the literature.
The NPR interview is worth a listen. Stillman, like his characters, is polite, articulate and well-mannered to a fault. Yet he put my in the mind of Oscar Wilde’s quote “only the shallow know themselves.”
Yes, Stillman knows his characters and can be brilliant at portraying their brittle exteriors while only hinting at what may lie beneath. But what lies beneath? He creates highly structured social worlds populated by attractive young people. One is easily seduced into thinking that the superficial exteriors must mask some real depths–of motivation, of character, of passion. But maybe that’s not the case. Maybe his characters are just as shallow as they appear.
Stillman himself appears to apprehend his own creations in this way. Discussing the Chris Eigeman character in his first films–the “talkative live wire, the group leader” who is “challenged and overthrown” by others in his set. He’s a snob, and part of a group that “could seem” snobby. But at the same time he’s “nice” to the outsider character that the audience might identify with. “He seems like he’s going to be the bad guy but actually he’s nice to our hero.”
That’s basically it. He seems not-so-nice but maybe actually he’s kind of nice. Perhaps this is as deep as it gets, and as deep as Stillman can take it.
Stillman has not been a stranger to Austen in his other work. In Metropolitan several of his young WASPs discuss Austen in lit-crit terms, with one remarking snidely that one of her novels consisted of children play acting. That was in a way an indirect reference to the polished goings on in Metropolitan itself. We will now get to see the real thing.
“Perhaps this is as deep as it gets, and as deep as Stillman can take it.”
That’s always been my take on Stillman’s films. I enjoy them as larks, even if I’m sometimes irritated by the stilted dialogue. But there’s not much going on beneath other than a depiction of upper-middle class angst and ease of mobility. And that’s fine with me.
“Damsels in Distress” was sketchy and disconnected. So much contempt for craft. I used to be a fan, but it seemed to me that Stillman couldn’t be bothered to show up for his own film.
Agreed. To me it didn’t hang together. Granted I suppose I had typecast Stillman after the first three as a chronicler of a certain kind of privileged and too-articulate WASP and was disappointed when he didn’t do a repeat performance. My bad on demanding repeat performances. But I must say I still had a hard time with the whole shebang and did not warm to Gerwig in the lead role. I finally warmed to her in Frances Ha, where I got in line with her quirky charms. But for me Damsels fell flat.