Whit Stillman’s latest film, Love & Friendship, is an adaptation of Jane Austen’s short novel Lady Susan, marking a first for the American director in working from a pre-existing text instead of his own material. Yet touches of Austen are peppered throughout Stillman’s films, especially influencing his storytelling and comedic sensibilities. With its adapted story and 18th-century setting, Love & Friendship may become the black sheep in the family that is Stillman’s filmography, a career-long series of similar yet distinct comedies of manners set in more contemporary times, like the last days of disco and the final months of the Cold War.
While specific to time and place, the characters in Stillman’s films are anachronistic by design: Comprised of American middle-to-upper-class ensembles, they wear antiquated affectations like fashion statements, unearthing ideas worth espousing from previous eras and treating them like gospel (in a couple of cases, they literally are Bible-based gospel). These enthusiastic predilections can clash with a character’s present-day lifestyle and become a source of great amusement or embarrassment, like Xavier’s commitment in Damsels in Distress (2011) to only practice anal sex in accordance with the Cathars, the 12th-century ascetic Christian movement. These gestures signify the characters’ social status, particularly the luxury of free time afforded these well-read, urban haute bourgeoisie (U.H.B.). The bored university kids in Metropolitan (1990) turn to Fourierism when gossip about the debutante ball season runs dry during winter break. The fresh-out-of-college, white-collared New Yorkers of The Last Days of Disco (1998) astutely articulate their opinions on an unfashionable genre, oblivious to the gentrifying effect their presence has in their neighborhood, which trickles all the way down to the disco clubs they try so hard to get into.
Stillman sticks to the tropes of the comedy of manners while also transcending them: His films acutely mock the yuppie characters, yet also imbue them with a great deal of emotional depth. This deep affection for his characters makes the argument that despite the U.H.B.’s ignorance and first-world problems, they are still an affable, compassionate lot.
This kind of nuance is most perceptible in his 1994 film Barcelona, perhaps in large part because instead of his typical ensemble cast, there are only two leads, cousins Ted (Taylor Nichols) and Fred (Chris Eigeman), allowing more screen time for character development. The two men are just trying to live a comfortable, grown-up lifestyle in the city—working, dating, socializing—yet find themselves occasionally baffled by European culture. Being American idiots abroad in a far-more-progressive country, Ted and Fred are ill-equipped to deal with the more relaxed social mores of the Barcelonans with whom they mingle. Open relationships, parties charged with heated political debates, and sexual promiscuity are only a few of the major culture clashes in which they find themselves intertwined. Set in the late 1980s, the film appears to use the end of the Cold War only as a backdrop, yet is actually highly informed by the concrete, anti-American sentiments of its Spanish characters, whose opinions not only surprise but genuinely anger Ted and (mostly) Fred, whose profession as a naval officer does little to assuage the suspicions of leftist acquaintances. The personal is political: Even in casual conversation, their friends explain in straightforward fashion why Fred’s Navy uniform, and Ted’s desire to find a woman to marry, are really fascist in nature.
Of the two, Fred has the lesser-formed, more obvious character arc, but he is absolutely integral as comic relief and the messenger of the trademark Stillmanian one-liners, like this retort to the prudish Ted, who resents Fred for spreading lies about his supposed fetishes:
Fred: You are far weirder than someone merely into S&M. At least they have a tradition. We have some idea what S&M is about. There’s movies and books about it. But so far as I know, there is nothing to explain the way you are.
The friction between the cousins highlights Fred’s (and by proxy, Eigeman’s) charisma in relation to Ted, whose nerdiness and seriousness begs Fred’s derision and provokes our delight in basking in his mockery. Yet we come to understand and even sympathize with Ted’s goals and desires through his self-serious voiceovers, which are at times self-deprecating, and at other times a little too assured or, as per the satirical conventions in which Stillman engages, ironic of what is depicted onscreen. In one scene, for instance, Ted is shown having a sales conversation with a client who appears slightly quizzical and largely mute, while his voiceover claims that some of his customers have also become his good friends.
Another particularly telling scene finds Fred walking in on Ted as he engages in two of his favorite activities: listening to jazz music, and reading from the Bible (which he conceals in The Economist to prevent becoming an obvious target for jokes). The sight of Ted jauntily dancing to the music while holding his holy book is certainly hilarious, but given that his so-deemed “religious phase” is based less on godly devotion than a desire to achieve self-actualization, his journey is something worth admiring, even as he shares the same enthusiasm for self-help and sales literature, which also supposedly help him with the same life goals. Ted’s earnest nature in seeking wisdom from a wide array of outmoded thinkers makes him extremely unhip in comparison to the cool, chain-smoking European intelligentsia surrounding him, but it also conveys true dedication from someone who doesn’t fall for trends, someone who’s not afraid to reveal his inspirations, someone who must find his own way in defining personal convictions. That seriousness may seem out of touch with the modern world—a fact that Stillman’s films are so good at satirizing—but it comes from a deeply felt thesis about one’s sense of obligation to learn what it means to be a good person, regardless of religion, social class, gender or culture. Such an aspiration may be a lofty, noble pursuit, one better articulated in the books these characters read than the way it’s applied in their messy lives, but Barcelona, as with all of Stillman’s films, suggests it’s an aspiration always worth pursuing.