Deliciously amoral

Whit Stillman brings ‘Love & Friendship’ to Israel.

Writter and director Whit Stillman will be attending the 33rd Jerusalem Film Festival (photo credit: Courtesy)
Writter and director Whit Stillman will be attending the 33rd Jerusalem Film Festival
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Lady Susan highlights Jane Austen’s humor, her comedy,” said film director Whit Stillman, speaking in an interview about the novel on which he based his latest movie, Love & Friendship, which will have its Israeli premiere at the 33rd Jerusalem Film Festival, which runs at the Jerusalem Cinematheque from July 7 to 17.
Stillman, who will be a guest of the film festival, was interviewed via Skype from Paris before his visit to Israel. He is one of the festival’s high-profile guests, along with director Quentin Tarantino, director/ musician/performance artist Laurie Anderson, actress Emma Suarez, who stars in the opening-night movie, Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta, and many others.
Love & Friendship, which stars Kate Beckinsale as the extravagantly and deliciously amoral Lady Susan, will open in theaters throughout Israel on July 14.
This novel, one of Austen’s first and least-known works, “was done early on, before she became so proper in her thinking, and she sort of permitted herself to go off the reservation. I felt that a lot of the Jane Austen adaptations hadn’t really included this kind of humor. This is a different humor from her other works, it’s more extravagant and stylized... She permitted herself to be more outrageous.” Since it had never been dramatized before, “it was fertile ground for an adaptation,” he said.
ITS STORY of a widow who spent all her husband’s money, buried him, and started on a search for rich husbands for herself and her daughter was a perfect fit for Stillman. In 1990, he burst onto the nascent American indie scene with Metropolitan, the stylized and charming story of a group of upper-class Manhattanites home from college on their Christmas vacation. He then went on to make two more dramedies, Barcelona (1994), about a group of American expats in Spain, and The Last Days of Disco (1998), a look at the New York nightlife scene. After a hiatus from the director’s chair of more than a decade, Stillman directed Damsels in Distress in 2011, which stars Greta Gerwig as a college student determined to bring out the best in everyone around her.
The movie Love & Friendship is based on Lady Susan, an unpublished early novella by Jane Austen; the movie’s title comes from another early Jane Austen work. It reunites the stars of The Last Days of Disco, Beckinsale and indie-movie queen Chloe Sevigny. Beckinsale, a versatile actress who has alternated among action movies (the Underworld series, Van Helsing and Whiteout), quality dramas (Laurel Canyon in 2002 and Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator in 2004, in which she portrayed Ava Gardner) and comedies (Serendipity, Click), has never been better than she is playing this captivating widow, who, in order to enjoy life to the fullest, must be a little bit smarter and faster than everyone else around her. Sevigny, in a supporting role, plays an American living in late 18th-century Britain, who helps Lady Susan weave a tangled web to trap suitors.
Beckinsale was “the first person I thought of” for the leading role, once he was casting the movie, although when he first began working on the adaptation, which he wrote “in between paying jobs” over a period of years, “she was too young, she was still in her 20s.”
Beckinsale, with her expert comic delivery, is the perfect actress to deliver such lines as, “Horrid woman, deranged! If she were going to be jealous, she should not have married such a charming man,” which she says about her lover’s wife, or, while speaking of Sevigny’s character’s disapproving husband, “What a mistake you made in marrying him. Too old to be governable, too young to die.”
The heroine is “so conscious of flouting convention,” and the comedy, although defined by the conventions of the period in which the novel is set, “seems so contemporary... the late 18th century [when Austen wrote the book] is closer to we where are now,” than the novels Austen wrote in the early 19th century, in Stillman’s analysis.
The character of Lady Susan is so assertive, self-confident and resourceful that she breaks the contemporary stereotype that women of Austen’s era were shrinking violets oppressed by the laws and social conventions.
“Something about feminism at times seems to denigrate women of the past, as if they didn’t have influence,” said Stillman, who clearly feels great affection for his self-aware, amoral heroine.
The large ensemble cast works brilliantly together. While Lady Susan gets most of the great lines, there are other memorable characters, such as Tom Bennett’s blockheaded Sir James Martin, a wealthy man who thinks there are 12 Commandments. When he is corrected, he tries with great excitement to figure out which two rules he can now break.
The movie, which was a success at the Sundance and Rotterdam festivals, has been a breakout box-office hit in the US, a rare distinction for an art-house film, where it was in the top 10. “It’s been in the top 10 everywhere it opened, and in Paris it was No. 2 its first week.”
While all’s well that ends well, it took Stillman a while to raise money for the film. He turned to friends to invest, the first time he has done so since Metropolitan, his debut film. “They have already recouped their investment, and that’s amazing.”
IT MAKES perfect sense that Stillman, the most literary of directors, has made a successful Jane Austen adaptation. The only question is what took him so long. The Harvard-educated Stillman, who worked in publishing when he finished college, says his biggest influence in making Metropolitan was not a movie but the works of J.D. Salinger, not only Catcher in the Rye but also Raise High the Roofbeam, Carpenters and Nine Stories, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise.
“When I was a sophomore in college, in three months I read my first Salinger and Jane Austen. I reacted against the Jane Austen, but with Salinger, I read the last page of The Catcher in the Rye and started again on the first page.”
Reading Fitzgerald inspired Stillman to become part of the socialite scene in New York. “The reason I got involved in that scene is I read This Side of Paradise when I was pursuing a socialite girl.”
The Oscar-nominated screenplay for Metropolitan was full of beautiful, funny and wise lines, most of them uttered by the sardonic preppie Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman), who, at least in terms of his wit, could have been a descendant of Lady Susan.
“The most important thing to realize about parents is that there is absolutely nothing you can do about them,” said Nick, as well as, “Playing strip poker with an exhibitionist somehow takes the challenge away.” But perhaps the movie’s most famous line is when Taylor Nichols (playing Charlie Black) coins the term “UHBs,” which stands for “Urban Haute Bourgeoisie.”
In addition to the Oscar nomination for the Metropolitan screenplay, the film won Stillman many honors, among them the Best New Director award from New York Film Critics Circle and the Independent Spirit Best First Feature Award. But nothing meant as much to him as the fact that it gave him the chance to make another movie, Barcelona, about young Americans in Spain, also based loosely on his life and the lives of his friends.
He followed this with The Last Days of Disco, starring Beckinsale and Sevigny as two young women who work in publishing and think, charmingly but naively, that the disco culture of the early 1980s will transform their lives by bringing them love and freedom.
Stillman turned the script into a novel that was published under the title The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards. He also published a novel adapted from the screenplay for Love & Friendship, which differs greatly from Austen’s original, epistolatory novel. It is called Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon is Entirely Vindicated, and the volume includes the full text of Austen’s Lady Susan.
Stillman is philosophical about the fact that he didn’t helm a movie from 1998 until 2011, when he made Damsels in Distress, a look at a charmingly earnest young woman (Greta Gerwig) and her acolytes at college.
“I was in ‘movie director jail’ for a while,” he said, trying to get various projects made, while he moved among New York, Paris, the West Coast and Florida. During this time, he kept going by working on television scripts, and recently wrote the pilot for The Cosmopolitans for Amazon.
The show, which is about American expats in Paris and also stars Sevigny, is witty and fun, and Stillman, waiting to hear whether it will be picked up by the network, is working on more scripts for it.
Stillman said that his period in the movie wilderness has had a positive effect on his daughters.
“The 25-year-old is a medical student, and the 30-year-old is a tip-top lawyer... It’s really cool that being a sort of deadbeat bohemian in director’s jail inspired my daughters to be very practical about what they were choosing. The last thing they wanted was anything creative.”
Looking forward to his first visit to Israel, Stillman said he was adamantly opposed to any kind of boycott.
“I’ve always wanted to come, I’ve been fascinated with it, this is a wonderful opportunity to come in the film context,” he said. Asked if he was nervous about being in Israel, he recalled the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris.
“We had one of the worst things happening almost next door to us at the Bataclan Club,” where 89 people were killed over a period of several hours.
“We have to be totally in solidarity with people who are being subject to this horrible [terrorism] and Israel, of course, has suffered more than anyone.”
Reflecting on Love & Friendship, which he was happy to hear received a positive response at a critics’ preview before the festival, Stillman said, “It was really gratifying to work on this; it turned out much better than I thought it would. If I weren’t so old, I’d call it a Cinderella story.”