Tuesday, May 31, 2016

from NY Review of Books, Adam Thirlwell discusses Whit Stillman's adaptation of Jane Austen

So I caught Age of Apocalypse over the weekend and while it had a few inspired touches here and there it was, as I suspected, a laborious chore.  On the other hand, I started off liking Whit Stillman's Love & Friendship and loved it by the end. Stillman gets that in spite of the bodice-ripping sentimentality that can be brought to Jane Austen's work (like that 2005 version Keira Knightley was in), her work is less characterized as straightforward romance than as satires of class and manners that use romance as an engine for narrative.  Stillman's adaptation is, especially in the final act, a significant revision, one that could be quickly inferred from anyone who sees the film who has also read Austen's work.  While it wouldn't normally be a spoiler to say in a comedy that there's a happy ending the happy ending is a switch-up because it's not the happy ending originally envisioned by the central character. 

Of the various things that have been written about the film, so far my favorite would easily be Adam Thirlwell's commentar:



In Stillman’s version, there are two moments of conversation between Lady Susan and Frederica that are central to the seriousness of his surfaces. “An offer as splendid as Sir James’s is not likely to come again,” Lady Susan observes. “He has offered you the one thing of value he has to give—his income.” This may be comically cynical, but it is also true. For as she elsewhere points out: “Dearest, our present comfortable state is of the most precarious sort. We don’t live—we visit. We are entirely at the mercy of our friends and relations…” To depend on the kindness of strangers or family is a terrible fate. You can only live, in Stillman’s films, if you are independent—and to be independent is both financial and spiritual. No wonder he was drawn to Austen. They are both analysts of power, and how it is distributed: and they both understand that power is most poignantly interrogated through narratives about women.
This adaptation is really a rewrite. And maybe that’s a particularly attractive mode, when the novel to be adapted is in epistolary form. The game of the epistolary novel is to maintain a constant haze between foreground and background, between what is reported to a correspondent and what the reader must infer has happened: it is the art form of gossip, of the hint. That haze allows Stillman his delicately sincere inversion of Austen’s amused irony. Just as the accompanying novel he has published is purportedly by Rufus Martin-Colonna de Cesari-Rocca, a newly imagined nephew of Sir James Martin, Lady Susan’s second husband—and precisely intended as a corrective to Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, to undo the “great posthumous injustice” done to her by “the spinster Authoress notorious for her poison-pen fictions hidden under the lamb-skin of Anonymity.” 

The injustice is Austen’s youthful lack of empathy for Lady Susan’s projects. For in Stillman’s world, our greatest vulnerability in society is to the judgments of others. “You can’t worry about what misinterpreters think,” someone says to ChloĆ« Sevigny’s character in The Last Days of Disco—and this could be the slogan of Stillman’s oeuvre. Sure, the surface may be all frivolity and flippancy, a high bourgeois/aristocratic setting. Such archness and such a setting can make it easy to see these films as exercises in the unserious unserious. But Stillman’s gravity comes from the way he both understands the terrors of social relations—the pursuit of love and friendship—and also admires all strategies in artifice that might soften these terrors, subvert the tyranny of misinterpretation, and restore a version of utopia. Against the malice of the social, he places a range of tactics: optimism, elegance, tradition, invented selves and accents, the desperate maintenance of outmoded or contradictory ideals. So what if an ideal is absurd! And his highest ideal is eloquence.


Which is to say the stakes in the Austen adaptation are far more significant than the X-Men film because in Austen's story the stakes involve the consequences and implications of decisions characters have to live with.  There's more I could say about the superhero genre and what some say about it but I'll save that for another post.

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