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Whit Stillman on Jane Austen and "Love and Friendship"

Jane Austen lovers, rejoice! Whit Stillman—director of The Last Days of Disco and Metropolitan—has shifted his storytelling focus to a rarely read story by Austen that has never been seen on film or television. Love & Friendship released in theaters on May 13 and follows the tale of Lady Susan, a widow and schemer extraordinaire who tosses off bon mots as she ignites chaos and intra-family strife while she pursues her next husband.

Love and FriendshipLove & Friendship is based on Austen's incomplete novella Lady Susan, but Stillman takes his own liberties with the story, expanding some plot lines and giving it a rousing, hilarious conclusion.

Several weeks ago, we got a sneak peek of this film (released by Amazon Studios), and Love & Friendship marries the best of Austen's wry observations with a cast that makes every line sparkle. Stillman then answered our questions about his adaptation of Austen's work and why he believes that (heroine? villainess?) Lady Susan needs vindicating.

Amazon Book Review: Many of Jane Austen's works have found viewership through the big or small screen. Why do you think Austen's novella Lady Susan has been overlooked for so long?

Whit Stillman: The neglect could stem from the awkward and not entirely finished form in which the story was left, which makes its many brilliant comedy nuggets and conceits somewhat hard to extract. The novella was "concluded" with a perfunctory summary but not fully completed as Austen finished the books she prepared for publication. It was finally published over a half century after her death, when her nephew added it to the second edition of his memoir of his aunt, himself attaching the title by which it has become known and which we have changed to the more Austenian title she had somewhat thrown away on an insignificant early story. By the time of its publication, the great and slightly less great Austens were already well established, and her story of the charming Lady Susan Vernon and her struggle with the moralistic and hypocritical DeCourcy family became the mistreated stepsister, but no Cinderella.

Part of the problem was the epistolary form, popular in the eighteenth century, in which the manuscript was left. She had written "Elinor and Marianne" and "First Impressions" in the same form, but later turned them into the dramatized works (writing scenes rather than letters) we know as Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice.

How closely does your film Love & Friendship mirror the novella Lady Susan?

A great deal of the overall story, the "matter," and the brilliantly funny lines come straight from Austen. Lots of comic gold, which sometimes seem to be more Oscar Wildean than Austenian, but she was decades ahead of him. Structurally certain characters had to be added, expanded or dropped. And then we hit another comic vein with the performances, which cried out to be expanded, and we have done so. There is also an "interesting" twist at the end. Ultimately each work becomes separate. I really hope the audience will approach the film and books in this sequence: Film first, then our novel Love & Friendship, and then the original Austen novella, which is included in full as an appendix to our book, with some very insightful annotations.

What about the story of Lady Susan appealed to you—and why do you think she needs "vindicating"?

We all need vindication! God Bless Us Every One, right? And the narrator's attempt to do so, when it is so entirely unjustified, becomes part of the joke.

Your previous films could be considered period pieces, in that they are set in very specific non-contemporary time periods that have a big impact on the characters, but this film is set more than two hundred years ago. What was the biggest surprise for you about filming a story set in a far older time period? 

How easy it is to do when filming in a country that specializes in it. It was the smoothest and most efficient production experience I have had. The key department heads were expert in realizing period projects, and between [where we filmed in] Dublin and London there were all the service companies—the horse and carriage providers, costume and furnishings rental houses—that make it easy, provided there is some monetary remuneration.

Lady Susan manages to convince a number of people of her virtuous nature. What do you think is the dividing line between those who are ensnared by her and those who see through her?

Well, she was virtuous—but cruelly maligned by the hypocritical DeCourcy family. That is the thesis of our novel, "In Which Jane Austen's Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated." She wanted the best for everyone—except perhaps for the "Respectable" Mr. Johnson—and finally achieved that.

Your films have been called "comedies of mannerlessness," but almost everyone in Love & Friendship is scrupulously polite.

Yes, could you remind me who wrote that? Because I would like to contact him. The "commentary of meaninglessness" is what I would call that; I think it was either the patter of one of our actors  in the context of press interviews, for which anything is excusable, or as part of a larger, otherwise okay article. Ultimately, though, it is better to be clever on the basis of something at least an itsy-bitsy tiny bit true!  Our films are pretty certainly the opposite of mannerless. The original trouble comes from the term "comedies of manners" and the diminished contemporary connotation of "manners." Stephen Fry gave a wonderful interview on the film in which he returns to the Latin original, which was "mores" or "morals" (I believe; could be garbling some of that), so "Comedies of Morals" would work much better.


See the trailer for Whit Stillman's film Love & Friendship.


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