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Links to our threads on Whit Stillman in general and Damsels in Distress (2011) in particular. We don't seem to have any threads dedicated to Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994) or The Last Days of Disco (1998).

 

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Miller coming to Ireland to film Jane Austen comedy

ACTRESS Sienna Miller will be spending the summer in the Irish countryside, thanks to her latest film role.

Miller has been cast in a period comedy, based on a short novel by Jane Austen.

Love and Friendship is the screen adaptation of the novel Lady Susan about a widow in search of two husbands – one for herself and one for her daughter. . . .

Boys Don't Cry actress Chloe Sevigny has also been cast as a close friend of Miller's character in the comedy by the author of Pride and Prejudice.

It will be directed by Oscar-nominated Whit Stillman, the American filmmaker behind films Damsels in Distress and The Last Days of Disco. . . .

The storyline follows Lady Susan as she embarks on a relationship with a married man and stirs up some controversy along the way.

In the novella, Lady Susan describes herself as "really, excessively pretty", and she uses her looks to get on in life.

She regards her daughter Frederica as an inconvenience who must be married off as soon as possible.

Austen chose not to submit the novella for publication, but her nephew, James Edward Austen-Leigh, included it in an 1871 biography of the author.

Herald, February 10

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 11 months later...
  • 1 year later...
  • 5 weeks later...

Saw this yesterday. Loved it, though I think I need to see it again -- not only do I have my usual difficulty with remembering all the zingers, but the dialogue is very particular to the period, and in a weird way it reminded me of The Witch, which takes place a century or two earlier but was similarly particular to its period in its dialogue.

There are a few references here to the Ten Commandments that I greatly enjoyed. I expect to see one of them -- a very funny one, at that -- used as a sermon-illustrating clip some day. But there are others that have a subtler significance. I actually found myself thinking at one point, "Hey, she said that so-and-so was the fourth commandment, but that's only true in the *Catholic* numbering system; for these Englishwomen, I would expect them to use the *Protestant* numbering system." I was going to look into this after the screening, but then, several scenes later, another character corrects the "error" and points out that the commandment in question is regarded as the "fourth" by "the church in Rome" but is actually considered "the fifth" here in England... and he doesn't make a big deal about it, so you could almost miss the fact that we have just learned something about a certain character, who pretends to be so knowledgeable (in a self-serving way) but isn't actually quite as clued-in as she pretends to be. (To put this another way: I highly, highly doubt that Stillman was trying to say that this character was Catholic; he was telling us something *else* about the character. And this does appear to be Stillman's writing, not Austen's; a scan of the Project Gutenberg edition of Lady Susan turns up no uses of "Rome", "commandment" or "church", except in the latter word's case where the Churchhill estate is concerned.)

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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  • 1 month later...

This appears to be the first Whit Stillman film to crack the top ten. It is certainly, as of this weekend, his most widely-distributed film; until now, that record had been held by 1994's Barcelona.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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On 4/28/2016 at 11:02 AM, Peter T Chattaway said:

There are a few references here to the Ten Commandments that I greatly enjoyed. I expect to see one of them -- a very funny one, at that -- used as a sermon-illustrating clip some day. But there are others that have a subtler significance. I actually found myself thinking at one point, "Hey, she said that so-and-so was the fourth commandment, but that's only true in the *Catholic* numbering system; for these Englishwomen, I would expect them to use the *Protestant* numbering system." I was going to look into this after the screening, but then, several scenes later, another character corrects the "error" and points out that the commandment in question is regarded as the "fourth" by "the church in Rome" but is actually considered "the fifth" here in England... and he doesn't make a big deal about it, so you could almost miss the fact that we have just learned something about a certain character, who pretends to be so knowledgeable (in a self-serving way) but isn't actually quite as clued-in as she pretends to be. (To put this another way: I highly, highly doubt that Stillman was trying to say that this character was Catholic; he was telling us something *else* about the character. And this does appear to be Stillman's writing, not Austen's; a scan of the Project Gutenberg edition of Lady Susan turns up no uses of "Rome", "commandment" or "church", except in the latter word's case where the Churchhill estate is concerned.)

I had the *exact* same reaction as you as she referenced the fourth commandment, and was pleased when the other character made the correction and reference to the Catholic numbering. The two scenes involving the Ten Commandments--one with the pastor, the other with Sir James Martin--filled my cinephile/pastor heart with glee. My wife and I were laughing at the latter scene, and I think we were the only people in the theater doing so. In fact, there were a number of overt Christian references in the humor, without the film ever feeling like it was poking fun at the church itself.

This is a witty, cynical, and hilarious film. The overly-long introduction of one character, James Martin, is the most I've laughed in the theater all year.

Edited by Joel Mayward
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My wife and I were able to see this yesterday.  It was a blast.  Everyone who mentions it is perfectly right - the combination of Austen and Stillman makes for sharp and sparkling dialogue.  Don’t watch this while you’re tired, you’ll need to keep on your toes to follow the whole thing.  If you don’t give the film your entire attention, then you are guaranteed to miss a great deal.

Uncharacteristic for an Austen story, it becomes clear fairly early in the film that the main character, Lady Susan (Beckinsale) is not a virtuous heroine, but is instead a scheming, self-centered manipulator.  Mrs. Johnson (Sevigny) gets to play a role as her confidant/partner in crime and you can tell that Beckinsale and Sevigny are having loads of fun together in the process.  What is different from most films that have fun focusing on their antiheroes is that, here, the virtuous characters are still there in the film’s background - and they are more than simply the butt of the protagonist's jokes.  Lady Susan’s daughter Frederica says very little, and, except for one moment of very effective action, pretty much sits there meekly in the background.  It isn’t until the end of the film that her virtue is explicitly contrasted with that of her mother’s, and you suddenly understand that her visits to church and her listening to the local curate were completely sincere.

Lord and Lady DeCourcy, along with their daughter, also seem to be the sort of good characters who would later become main characters in Austen’s later novels.  In this story, they also stand more in the background, attempting to thwart the designs of the manipulative Lady Susan - but they are still treated with affection by Stillman.  A single scene of their reading a letter together wins you over to them.  Meanwhile, their gullible but well meaning son Reginald is also taught a few moral lessons of his own.  He ends the story wiser and better for it.

Stillman has always been a great one for gently making fun of human hypocrisy and deluded self-justification, and Lady Susan is hilariously full of both.  But besides the usual moral theme of virtue running through the story, the film’s other moral theme seems to be the culture’s hypocrisy regarding the status of women.  Despite her own moral failures, Lady Susan is one woman who bucks the relegation of women to mere dependents of their husbands.  Whenever she walks into a room, by the sheer force of her wit, her will prevails, no matter whether it goes against or corresponds with the other characters’ good intentions - and no matter whether they realize it at that moment or realize it later.

Also, yes, Tom Bennett’s Sir James Martin just performed some of the most painfully awkward scenes that Stillman has ever filmed.  He’s still making me laugh even to think of him a day later.  And, in one of the film’s last scenes, he innocently becomes the mouthpiece of the time’s double-standard towards infidelity of men and of women.  The levels of irony in this scene are a pure pleasure.

Stillman knocked this one out of the park.

Christopher Morrissey, The Imaginative Conservative, May 25, 2016:
“When surveying all the greatest works written in the English language, Jane Austen’s novels certainly rank right up there with Shakespeare’s dramas. But Austen is not just one of the greatest novelists of all time. She is also an important thinker in the tradition of moral philosophy. This is because Austen teaches us how to rightly judge character, as well as to pursue virtue for its own sake. Prof. MacIntyre notices that this sort of philosophical enterprise requires the use of novelistic form, because ‘any specific account of the virtues presupposes an equally specific account of the narrative structure and unity of a human life.’ By giving us a comprehensive view of a heroine’s life, Austen shows us how virtue itself has intrinsic value. A heroine who ‘pursues virtue for the sake of a certain kind of happiness and not for its utility’ is thus able to indirectly demonstrate to us, via the author’s literary ironies, how happiness lies in virtue cultivated for its own sake. True virtue, we can infer from her heroines’ own life stories, is what offers true happiness.

For this reason, Prof. MacIntyre identified Austen as ‘the last great representative of the classical tradition of virtues.’ In her novels, she unites ‘Christian and Aristotelian themes in a determinate social context.’ This, according to Prof. MacIntyre, ‘makes Jane Austen the last great effective imaginative voice of the tradition of thought about, and practice of, the virtues.’”

Whit Stillman Interview by Amazon Book Review:
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.”

Also, Stillman wrote a companion book for the film.

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Love & Friendship is definitely going to be on my top ten list for 2016. I hope to see it again soon.

Thanks for that quote from the Amazon review, J.A.A. Purves. "Comedies of Morals" is perfect.

Lady Susan may be the most self-serving, scheming, manipulative character in Austen, but she's not the only "heroine" (if we can call her that) to be less than virtuous. Although I'm no Austen expert by any means, I think it's true that a few of her protagonists at least have some things to learn before their happy endings. Emma, for example (I hope Ken Morefield agrees) is very manipulative and not nearly as good at it or as selfless as she thinks she is, even if her intentions are good; Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy, despite their other admirable qualities, are hampered by "pride and prejudice;" the Sense and Sensibility sisters have to learn moderation, etc.

The most ridiculous and/or despicable characters are usually secondary, though.

There is this difference between the growth of some human beings and that of others: in the one case it is a continuous dying, in the other a continuous resurrection. (George MacDonald, The Princess and Curdie)

Isn't narrative structure enough of an ideology for art? (Greg Wright)

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On 6/1/2016 at 0:43 PM, BethR said:

Lady Susan may be the most self-serving, scheming, manipulative character in Austen, but she's not the only "heroine" (if we can call her that) to be less than virtuous.

True.  And, if it is correct that Lady Susan was one of the first novels that Austen wrote, then the development of some of her themes and characters over time is certainly interesting with this novel being a beginning point.

14 hours ago, Joel Mayward said:

My review, in which I compare Lady Susan with Frank Underwood. The more I've thought about the film over the past few days, the more I can appreciate it, especially Tom Bennett's performance as James Martin.

Good point about the film actually comparing Sir James with Lady Susan.  They are both continually breaking social conventions in their own ways.  I'm under the impression that Stillman finds obliviousness to be quite funny as a character trait.

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In short, highly attractive to men.

Your observation makes me realize that I didn't really care for Love & Friendship because I wasn't the least bit attracted to Lady Susan, so the logic of the film was lost on me. I've always joked that there is a direct correlation between the extent of my crush on Rohmer's leading ladies and my fondness for his films. And now I'm going to be distracted for the rest of the day by the idea of a Rohmer adaptation of Austen's novella!

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On 6/8/2016 at 3:36 PM, Darren H said:

Your observation makes me realize that I didn't really care for Love & Friendship because I wasn't the least bit attracted to Lady Susan, so the logic of the film was lost on me. I've always joked that there is a direct correlation between the extent of my crush on Rohmer's leading ladies and my fondness for his films. And now I'm going to be distracted for the rest of the day by the idea of a Rohmer adaptation of Austen's novella!

 

In what sense of "attracted"? I suppose "crush" may answer that, but one is obliged to hope that others, especially those with whom one disagrees, aren't that ... one is tempted to say "not that shallow," but charity requires the accentuation of possibility. So let me say instead that I am confident in Mr. Hughes's critical sensibilities as being higher and more refined than such a vulgar reading.

Edited by vjmorton

Yeah ... well ... I'm gonna have to go ahead and disagree with you there on that one.

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I know that's just an off-the-cuff remark, Darren, but the comparison to horror cinema strikes we as off-base. This film does not thrive on visceral effect. It's meant to be experienced with some distance between the viewer and the material.

I wouldn't say that I was personally attracted to Lady Susan (Beckinsale is admittedly gorgeous, but her character's personality is transparently repellent), but I found her sway over some of the individuals in this story acceptable within the parameters of the genre and the film's fictional world.

I don't need Lady Susan's sway over men to be any more credible than the ludicrous fascination women have with James Bond in the Roger Moore Bond films. It's all just a gag.

 

 

 

Edited by Ryan H.
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I thought this was an absolute blast. Beckinsale and Sevigny played off of one another perfectly, the rest of the cast effortlessly inhabited their roles, Stillman maintained a convincing period atmosphere as well as a lively pacing, and the witty dialogue was a great merging of his own voice with Austen's.

Also, I'm going to be laughing about "the twelve commandments" for days.

"Anyway, in general I love tragic artists, especially classical ones."

"Even the forms for expressing truth can be multiform, and this is indeed necessary for the transmission of the Gospel in its timeless meaning."

- Pope Francis, August 2013 interview with Antonio Spadaro

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best line in film is regarding the 12 Commandments: "Which two did they take out." The joke is de facto stolen from Mel Brooks, but played absolutely straight, which makes it WAAAY funnier.

Yeah ... well ... I'm gonna have to go ahead and disagree with you there on that one.

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On 6/14/2016 at 8:22 AM, Darren H said:

It's like a horror movie where characters talk about how terrifying the monster is, and then when you finally see it, it's just some guy in a monster suit. As for vulgar readings, the only image from Love & Friendship that has stuck with me is Chloe Sevigny in a corset.

That's because her corset is SO TIGHT that she's chest-breathing, which makes her breasts look like balloons inflating and deflating with each breath. It's really distracting. I actually commented on this to Suz at the time, who had the exact same thought. 

Edited by SDG

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

Writing at the new Decent Films | Follow me on Twitter and Facebook

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Hi there, I absolutely loved the film, and I  wanted to share some thoughts I had regarding the moral vision of Stillman in this film:

Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin is flat-out hilarious in this film. Though it is absolutely Kate Beckinsale's film, as Lady Susan, it seems to me that Martin is the moral key to the movie.

Sir James is a fool, yes, in the sense of a comic character, buy also in the sense of a person without a moral understanding, as in the foolish man of the book of Proverbs.
He is basically a "good person," but his goodness is totally contingent or accidental. His moral code is unexamined, and relies on the structure of the social order around him. It's not just that he is ignorant of the commandments, but that he does what is right when it seems natural. It's absurd for him to imagine committing murder, (it's just not done) but he whimsically, with a sexist double standard, excuses male infidelity while ironically unable to imagine that a woman would be unfaithful.
His foolish lack of moral wisdom leads him to be manipulated by Lady Susan, who is an expert at using the codes of polite society and religious morality for her own means. 
Her daughter, however, who is shown to have a sincere moral code, and seeks to form her conscience honestly, is in the end unable to be controlled by Lady Susan despite her lack of social power over her own situation.
Incidentally, I love the way that the villainy of Susan and her daughter's contrasting purity of heart is only gradually revealed, allowing us to see the complexity of the characters through the lens of their social interactions.
As for Sir James, though, he is an illustration of this verse (not poem ;-) ) of Scripture:

Proverbs 5:3-4
For the lips of an adulteress drip honey
And smoother than oil is her speech;
But in the end she is bitter as wormwood,
Sharp as a two-edged sword.

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  • 1 month later...

 

On May 31, 2016 at 2:26 PM, J.A.A. Purves said:

. . .

Uncharacteristic for an Austen story, it becomes clear fairly early in the film that the main character, Lady Susan (Beckinsale) is not a virtuous heroine, but is instead a scheming, self-centered manipulator.  Mrs. Johnson (Sevigny) gets to play a role as her confidant/partner in crime and you can tell that Beckinsale and Sevigny are having loads of fun together in the process.  What is different from most films that have fun focusing on their antiheroes is that, here, the virtuous characters are still there in the film’s background - and they are more than simply the butt of the protagonist's jokes.  Lady Susan’s daughter Frederica says very little, and, except for one moment of very effective action, pretty much sits there meekly in the background.  It isn’t until the end of the film that her virtue is explicitly contrasted with that of her mother’s, and you suddenly understand that her visits to church and her listening to the local curate were completely sincere.

Lord and Lady DeCourcy, along with their daughter, also seem to be the sort of good characters who would later become main characters in Austen’s later novels.  In this story, they also stand more in the background, attempting to thwart the designs of the manipulative Lady Susan - but they are still treated with affection by Stillman.  A single scene of their reading a letter together wins you over to them.  Meanwhile, their gullible but well meaning son Reginald is also taught a few moral lessons of his own.  He ends the story wiser and better for it.

Stillman has always been a great one for gently making fun of human hypocrisy and deluded self-justification, and Lady Susan is hilariously full of both.  But besides the usual moral theme of virtue running through the story, the film’s other moral theme seems to be the culture’s hypocrisy regarding the status of women.  Despite her own moral failures, Lady Susan is one woman who bucks the relegation of women to mere dependents of their husbands.  Whenever she walks into a room, by the sheer force of her wit, her will prevails, no matter whether it goes against or corresponds with the other characters’ good intentions - and no matter whether they realize it at that moment or realize it later.

. . .

 

Christopher Morrissey, The Imaginative Conservative, May 25, 2016:
“When surveying all the greatest works written in the English language, Jane Austen’s novels certainly rank right up there with Shakespeare’s dramas. But Austen is not just one of the greatest novelists of all time. She is also an important thinker in the tradition of moral philosophy. This is because Austen teaches us how to rightly judge character, as well as to pursue virtue for its own sake. Prof. MacIntyre notices that this sort of philosophical enterprise requires the use of novelistic form, because ‘any specific account of the virtues presupposes an equally specific account of the narrative structure and unity of a human life.’ By giving us a comprehensive view of a heroine’s life, Austen shows us how virtue itself has intrinsic value. A heroine who ‘pursues virtue for the sake of a certain kind of happiness and not for its utility’ is thus able to indirectly demonstrate to us, via the author’s literary ironies, how happiness lies in virtue cultivated for its own sake. True virtue, we can infer from her heroines’ own life stories, is what offers true happiness.

For this reason, Prof. MacIntyre identified Austen as ‘the last great representative of the classical tradition of virtues.’ In her novels, she unites ‘Christian and Aristotelian themes in a determinate social context.’ This, according to Prof. MacIntyre, ‘makes Jane Austen the last great effective imaginative voice of the tradition of thought about, and practice of, the virtues.’”

 

On June 15, 2016 at 5:08 PM, magadizer said:

Hi there, I absolutely loved the film, and I  wanted to share some thoughts I had regarding the moral vision of Stillman in this film:

Tom Bennett as Sir James Martin is flat-out hilarious in this film. Though it is absolutely Kate Beckinsale's film, as Lady Susan, it seems to me that Martin is the moral key to the movie.

Sir James is a fool, yes, in the sense of a comic character, buy also in the sense of a person without a moral understanding, as in the foolish man of the book of Proverbs.
He is basically a "good person," but his goodness is totally contingent or accidental. His moral code is unexamined, and relies on the structure of the social order around him. It's not just that he is ignorant of the commandments, but that he does what is right when it seems natural. It's absurd for him to imagine committing murder, (it's just not done) but he whimsically, with a sexist double standard, excuses male infidelity while ironically unable to imagine that a woman would be unfaithful.
His foolish lack of moral wisdom leads him to be manipulated by Lady Susan, who is an expert at using the codes of polite society and religious morality for her own means. 
Her daughter, however, who is shown to have a sincere moral code, and seeks to form her conscience honestly, is in the end unable to be controlled by Lady Susan despite her lack of social power over her own situation.
Incidentally, I love the way that the villainy of Susan and her daughter's contrasting purity of heart is only gradually revealed, allowing us to see the complexity of the characters through the lens of their social interactions.
As for Sir James, though, he is an illustration of this verse (not poem ;-) ) of Scripture:

Proverbs 5:3-4
For the lips of an adulteress drip honey
And smoother than oil is her speech;
But in the end she is bitter as wormwood,
Sharp as a two-edged sword.

Yes, I think there are some subtle moral investigations going on in this film, as usual with Stillman.  At the same time, I think Christians and conservatives can sometimes jump on the little moments in Stillman's films and use them to justify an entire worldview and political agenda, and most of the time I think that's something Stillman avoids doing.  (I tend to do this, too.  And this is not necessarily what the posters I quoted are doing!  But they made me think about it.)  He has characters put forward various ideas and conceptions of morality and politics in highly articulate ways, but the he constantly undercuts them and their pronouncements, showing them to be slightly ridiculous and nearly always self-serving.  So in Metropolitan Tom's socialist idealism turns out to be motivated partly by his resentment of richer kids, and ends up falling away with the resentment.  And Chris Eigeman's Nick appears to take a moral stand against Rick von Slonnecker at least partly because he liked a girl that Rick slept with, and feels both jealous and guilty about what happened to her.  The political, for Stillman characters, is nearly always a product of personal circumstances rather than disinterested idealism.  Likewise, his virtuous heroines in Metropolitan and Last Days of Disco attract more men than the less-virtuous female characters, but this does not mean Stillman slaps down the less-virtuous or punishes them severely.  After all, no one in his films is ever a real villain--at worst they're selfish jerks.  And for Stillman, there can be something really entertaining, and even admirable about selfish jerks, as long as they don't take it so far that they start genuinely hurting other people.  The bossy types (generally played by Eigeman and Beckinsale) are often able to get what they want and make things happen in ways the shy, "virtuous" types can't, and while virtue is rewarded, not all less-than-virtuous acts are punished.  Everyone generally gets at least a partially happy ending.

Anyway, I think we should be careful about regarding Lady Susan as any sort of embodiment of sin or evil.  After all, we spend the whole movie laughing in delight at how outrageous she can be (and sympathizing with her plight in a society where she has very few options to begin with).  And in the end, she gets everything she wants.  But I do think it is significant that Frederica gets true love, while Susan only gets marriage arrangement of convenience, and it seems pretty clear that one brings more joy than the other.  What I think is significant about Frederica's visit to the church, beyond what it says about her character, is that the curate's speech emphasizes the principles behind the truism "Honor your father and mother."  The various social codes and manners of society are clearly corruptible, and can be used to manipulate others without actually breaking them.  But there are deeper principles out there, deeper morals, which go beyond mere politeness, and those are both attractive in others and rewarding in oneself.

I think Richard Brody's review was very interesting, and touched on some of these points (though I don't endorse it completely): 

Quote

For Stillman, Austen's England is like John Ford's West--a place that Stillman has no personal experience of but that, in his idealizing cinematic reconstitution, embodies his crucial ideas. Just as Ford’s West was like Socrates’ city in speech, where the functions of government were still being defined and were being deployed locally, physically, dramatically—where the abstractions of modern bureaucracy were rendered tangible—Stillman’s Austenland is where the codes of society are well known and stringently enforced, where the hidden framework of punctilious rules and rigid norms is brought to the forefront and architecturally externalized, like a Beaubourg of mores.

With the strict and mighty edifice of social order rendered visible, Stillman, in “Love & Friendship,” brings his career-long big idea to a new pitch of specificity and clarity. For Stillman, style is a matter of submitting gracefully to the imperatives of society in order to achieve one’s personal goals and fulfill one’s own will nonetheless—a superficial submission that masks will with beauty, a mode of irony that’s not merely logical (Socratic style) but aesthetic. Stillman sees style as a way of coping gracefully with society’s rules and fulfilling illicit desires without violence or even disruption. He depicts style as a mask and mode of deception, and this deceit—and the willful ends that it achieves—doesn’t undercut the beauty of style but, rather, heightens it. “Love & Friendship” is, for Stillman, a story of a woman’s secret self-liberation in a society in which the burden of restrictions on women’s behavior is onerous.

. . .

The core of “Love & Friendship” is set into motion by the necessity of distinguishing mores from morality and the effort that the distinction involves.

Stillman observes the magnificence of Lady Susan’s behavior—her temerity, her audacity, her irreproachable gracefulness in trying circumstances, her diction, her wit, her epistolary flair, and, above all, her sense of personal style in negotiating the social minefield—as a flamboyantly aestheticized performance that aims at one goal, achieving her ends, accomplishing her will, fulfilling her desire. And that desire is fundamentally carnal. Lady Susan’s reference to the subset to which she belongs—“we women of decision”—and a relative’s reference to “a woman of her genius” (adding, “diabolically so”) suggest the esteem in which Stillman holds the protagonist, as well. The subject of the film is Lady Susan’s carefully but boldly wrought self-liberation—and the collective, societal liberation that sweeps outward from her quiet but decisive defiance.

For Stillman, seeing the rules of society means seeing that they need to be broken—that the right ones (i.e., the ones that are in the wrong) need to be broken, from the inside, without breaking the weight-bearing ones of humanity and decency, of fundamental morality. His films suggest that he believes that there are such things—that he’s a sort of natural moralist and, therefore, essentially conservative. But his films’ conservatism is based firmly on the ongoing work, by society’s most daringly creative and appetitive members, to quietly but decisively overthrow its elements of misrule and to have a hell of a good time in the process—and, as a result, leave a trail of mercurial beauty that others will then imitate to create what is widely known as fashion and is gathered up under the name of style. “Love & Friendship” is both a worldview in motion and the story of how it crystallized; its portrait of a society changing suddenly, drastically, and gloriously through the delicate strategies and bold tactics of a woman who’s honest with herself about what she wants and what she’ll do to get it is strangely, deeply personal.

 

And since I haven't said it yet, I loved this movie.  I'm so glad that Whit Stillman and Wes Anderson are around to keep the tradition of Lubitsch alive in modern cinema.

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I certainly didn't mean to imply that Lady Susan was merely an avatar of sin or evil.  I just had an exchange with Evan C. on Twitter a couple days ago where we talked about our admission for the ways in which Stillman refused to make pure villains of anyone of his characters. (link to tweet thread below) I just meant that functionally, Susan is the "Villain" of the story. Though the fact that she's also the protagonist, and so naturally in a place in the story where we should identify with her, also undercuts the notion that she's a Villain.

 

But you make a good point that he does also seem to avoid wholly endorsing any particular positive POV either.

 

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23 hours ago, magadizer said:

 

I certainly didn't mean to imply that Lady Susan was merely an avatar of sin or evil.

 

Yeah, sorry if I seemed to oversimplify your point there.  One of the things that sparked my thoughts was the series of posts Christopher Morrissey wrote about the film on The Imaginative Conservative (one of which J.A.A. Purves linked and quoted above), which were quite interesting, but seemed to be reading the film as more of a strict moral thesis than a story about characters.  I like it when movies share and affirm my religious and political views as well, and I think Stillman does mostly have the worldview of a conservative moralist with broadly Christian grounding, but I think he's a little more difficult to pin down inside those lines than some think.    On the other hand, a number of secular critics seem to have missed the significance of the religious and moral discussions within the film entirely, and praise it for being a cheerful celebration of an amoral antihero.  Clearly there's more going on than that.  

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