In my review for Carol, I brought up a comparison to Agnes Varda’s Le Bonheur in order to discuss how both films are centered on the roles which society expects women to fit in. In Le Bonheur, the female character Emile (Marie-France Boyer) is completely subsumed by society’s expectations and is thereby forced into the role of a housewife. In Carol there is a form of resistance on the part of the film’s two main characters, Carol (Cate Blanchett) and Therese (Rooney Mara); while Carol and Therese are subjected to forms of loss and pain due to their resistance, unlike Emile of Le Bonheur, they are able to break free of their roles albeit at a cost.
Based on Jane Austen’s novel Lady Susan, Whit Stillman’s latest film, Love & Friendship, is similar to both Carol and Le Bonheur in that, once again, it is a film that is also about the roles that society forces women into. What makes Love & Friendship different from Carol and Le Bonheur, however, is that not only is there a form of resistance on the part of the film’s protagonist, Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), but that Vernon in her rebellion against society is completely successful in getting what she wants. Furthermore, Vernon’s resistance isn’t performed by going against the laws of society; it’s done by playing by their rules and using their codes against them. This aspect of rebellion and the manner in which that rebellion is played out give Love & Friendship an element of political intrigue, where backed by a strong script and a cast of superb actors, the story is made absolutely enthralling due to its complexity.
The story of Love & Friendship revolves around the political escapades of the widowed Lady Susan Vernon. Vernon has recently been kicked out of Lady Lucy Manwaring’s (Jenn Murray) home due to the former being involved in a tryst with the latter’s husband. Vernon heads to the estate of her siblings in-law and hopes to restore fortune to her name by finding a suitable husband for her daughter, Catherine Vernon (Emma Greenwell). By the standards of her society, Vernon’s technique in finding a suitable husband for her daughter is unorthodox to say the least. Beckinsale plays Vernon with a wonderful sense of charisma and charm to which she deploys on the men around her in order to get the best results for herself. For me, part of the joy of watching the film is seeing the story unfold; in what new manner will it be revealed that Vernon has made a fool out of another man? Vernon is one step ahead of the story, and the humor stems from following the bread-crumbs she’s left behind but unfortunately for the men who follow them (but good for us), the joke is on them.
Love & Friendship begins with an introduction to its rather large cast, and in Stillman’s cinematic technique for introducing the characters, I am reminded of Wes Anderson. Characters stand posed, illuminated by a portrait of light while the background is darkened, and are given humorous descriptions. For example, the first character we’re introduced to in this manner is Lord Manwaring (Jenn Murray) who is described as “A Divinely Handsome Man.” I think what brings up this comparison to Wes Anderson is that like Anderson’s films, Love & Friendship at times features ironic, deadpan, and/or dry humor and also that the tone of the scores are similar, although in Love & Friendship the classical music is used due to the time period being the late 18th century whereas in Anderson it can be seen as a form of nostalgia. To bring up an example of the type of humor in Love & Friendship, there’s a fantastic scene where Vernon tells off a man who approaches her to say hello, and when her close friend Alicia Johnson (Chloe Sevigny) asks if she knew the man, to paraphrase Vernon, she says, “Of course I did! I would never speak that way to a stranger.”
And speaking of irony, there is also a sense of irony in analyzing Love & Friendship as the successful rebellion of a woman against society. This sense of irony exists because while Vernon is free to do what she wants due to her sly methods, her daughter Catherine is subjected to the very same rules Susan fights against, and the one subjecting Catherine is none other than Susan herself. Catherine wishes to avoid being married and would like to become a teacher, a sentiment to which everyone around her laughs at. In wanting to restore her family’s fortune, Susan makes Catherine a pawn in her quest for power although in defense of Susan, Catherine does end up happier for the better of it. Perhaps mother does know best.
One final point I’d like to make is on Love & Friendship’s costume design which is absolutely fantastic. A quick search on google reveals the costume designer to be Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh, and I would not be surprised if come award season, simply sweeps the competition. In constructing the costumes for the film, Mhaoldomhnaigh gives the clothing a sense of elegance without ever being too gaudy.
On all fronts, Love & Friendship is a superbly crafted work of art. Stillman’s strong writing is enhanced not just by his directing of his actors but what each individual actor is able to bring to the table. Even the smaller supporting roles seem just as important due to how immersive they make the film. It’s a serious film that’s also an older period piece but in various ways, Love & Friendship is also a modern comedy. At least, its women are, and they’re the ones who steal the show.