whit stillman talks 'love & friendship,' chloë sevigny, and dancing at studio 54
The director discusses why he reunited with Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale for a vicious update of a Jane Austen novella.
The last time writer-director Whit Stillman teamed up Chloë Sevigny with Kate Beckinsale, he put them in LBDs and Studio 54 for a witty reading of WASPish social mores and status among the upper classes in early 1980s Manhattan. Twenty years after the release of The Last Days of Disco, he's reunited the two actresses but transplanted them into Jane Austen's England. They've donned frocks and bonnets for Love & Friendship, a savagely humorous take on social climbing in 18th-century Britain.
Beckinsale plays Lady Susan — the original title of the Jane Austen novella the film is based upon — and the kind of tyrannical woman Nighty Night's Jill Tyrell could take tips from. Sevigny plays her American confidante, in whom she divulges a wicked plan to secure her own future by selling off her daughter. It's Stillman — long seen as a progenitor to Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson — at his best, deep in class and competition territory, with characters who think themselves smarter than they are. Except, perhaps, for the wonderfully dastardly Lady Susan.
You're a huge Austen fan but why did you decide to adapt one of Austen's very early novellas?
I discovered the novella Lady Susan and thought it sensationally funny and strange. I thought it would be a real challenge to adapt. I worked on it between projects. I was sad when [other] projects didn't go forward but I could always come back to this happy project — my silly, improbable project.
It's a work that Austen shied away from in her lifetime. Is the novella as fun and wild as the film adaptation or did you have to update it?
This racy cousin inspired her, but I think later she felt maybe it was too racy, immoral. I'm totally in sync with Jane Austen. I really like her point of view and everything she thinks. So I don't want to distort or update it in any way. I didn't want to go back there, I wanted her to come here.
Lady Susan is an absolute rogue who says exactly what she pleases and will do whatever she needs to achieve her goals. What was her appeal to you?
She's absolutely aware of what she's doing but to the people she can't admit that to, she won't admit it to. I love the lovable reprobate. If they have the right spirit, that makes them really likable. She's extravagant, self aware, and completely manipulative.
Our readers love Chloë.
Well, they're right. They should! She's got such a lovely spirit. She's so charming. There's so much artifice in our business, so much clanking of the gears and Chloë exists in the moment in this really charming way. She's a very nice girl. She comes out of this small town in Connecticut which is very rich and very pretty. Her family were the bohemian painters in the town. Her father was the art teacher, her mother's absolutely lovely and her brother's this great guy who starts these really good clubs. She just comes from a really good place.
You set The Last Days of Disco in and around Studio 54. What was your experience of the club?
I was an adherent of the disco movement. I adored disco and I was excited by it from the moment the first precursor of it arrived. I remember being in an Upper East Side bar with dancing pretensions and "The Hustle" came on the sound system and I thought, "This is great, this is something." There'd been this total nightlife wasteland of no place to go out and go dancing. It was just really druggy. I hadn't realized that Gamble and Huff, Philadelphia soul had been going on for a certain time, and that's what would lead to disco. Saturday Night Fever came out. In 1977, Studio 54 opened and a very preppy girlfriend of mine really wanted to go and we had a really good time, then certain friends got really involved in it so I would go. I was working at a publication where I got out of work at 2am sometimes, and there's not a lot of places open at 3am, so I'd go and have a drink with my friend who was in this group with Prince Egon von Fürstenberg, who was married to Diane von Fürstenberg.
Are you aware of snobbery to period adaptations in the UK?
Aha! Why do the British not sufficiently appreciate their literary culture? There's a lot of denigration of this kind of movie here, the heritage movie and all that. It doesn't make much sense as it's great. You go back and read something from 1795 and it's really funny, clear, and quotable. Jane Austen was very strangely like an Oscar Wilde precursor. This film is so much like an Oscar Wilde play, but better. The material in her novella is Oscar Wilde but better because it's really significant. It's not just having tons of fun on the surface. It's dealing with deeper things.
Love & Friendship is in cinemas now.
Text Colin Crummy