Published Jun 09, 2016For a while there, it seemed like Whit Stillman might be out of ideas. After his debut, 1990's Metropolitan, earned him both an Independent Spirit Award and an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay, Stillman followed it up with Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998), garnering him more accolades and further establishing his penchant for skewering the spoiled American upper crust with deliciously barbed social commentary. Then, for over a decade, he went quiet.
Stillman re-emerged in 2011 with whimsical college romp Damsels in Distress, but quietly, he'd been working on something closer to his heart — a screen adaptation of Jane Austen's posthumously published novella, Lady Susan, retitled Love & Friendship.
"It started to become interesting to me to adapt some other material, since I had played out my own stories," Stillman says. By the early 2000s, he knew he wanted to adapt Austen, but taking on the "classic, wonderful" works, he felt, would simply reduce "the magnificent film you get when you read them." He landed on Lady Susan, he says, because "there's funny material, but it didn't seem like a complete picture. By making a film, I could add to the Austen film shelf, but with more scope for me to realize something that was, in certain ways, only partially realized."
Hilarious, beautifully shot and sharply written, Love & Friendship rivals Metropolitan as Stillman's best work. Taking the epistolary novella and adapting it for film means that all of the backstabbing, whisperings and manipulation of the letters take place in real time and confined space, making for something of a wits-only bloodbath.
Asked which aspect of his adaptation he's most proud of, though, Stillman is quick to answer: "I think the slightly scandalous ending is the most effective thing." Where Austen's novella ends with a somewhat chastened Lady Susan, Love & Friendship, argues a smirking Stillman, lets her "have her cake and eat it too. That's not in the novel, and it wouldn't be; it's 'immoral.' And we can be immoral now," he adds. "Though I don't recommend it in life."