Metropolitan (1990): Whit Stillman’s Homage to Jane Austen

Thanks to New York born and raised director Whit Stillman, one of Jane Austen’s characters in her juvenilia, Lady Susan Vernon, had a field day last year. For those wondering how that came about, do seek out Stillman’s film Love & Friendship (2016), or his movie-tie-in book Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated. 

But Janeites may not have noticed, back in 1990, five years before the pivotal year of wet shirt Darcy’s mortifying encounter with Lizzy Bennet, another Austen character was vindicated, Fanny Price of Mansfield Park. And they have Stillman to thank.

What does Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, published in 1814 England, have in common with a bunch of upper class college freshmen/women in 1990 New York City, calling themselves UHB (Urban haute bourgeoisie), worrying about an ‘escort’ shortage for their debutante parties during their Christmas break?

Wait a minute, UHB? ‘Urban Haute Bourgeoisie‘? Isn’t that the kind of targets that would have interested Jane? Our astute Jane who loved to wield her pen, piercing through the façade of the rich and privileged, shaking the underlying status quo of society of her time? Jane would have loved Stillman’s film. She would be amused by the characters in this comedy of manners and their social commentaries. Debutante parties? Jane would be surprised to hear they still exist in the 20th century. If she were to write the screenplay, Jane would probably be less subtle.

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Stillman’s Metropolitan is not so much an acerbic satire but a gentle poke and  descriptive vignettes of the young UHB’s lifestyle and thinking. From his treatment of his characters, he is gentle and forbearing, albeit incisive, just enough to elicit some knowing chuckles.

In Mansfield Park, Jane presented a heroine that is a contrarian. Fanny Price is unadorned, impoverished, athletically challenged, a misfit and outsider when she enters the upper class home of Sir Thomas Bertram. But it’s her being principled and virtuous that make her stick out like a sore thumb. As Jane ends the book, Fanny gets the final praise, and an oblivious, but decent, Edmund as her ultimate reward.

Stillman’s Metropolitan is set in 1990 NYC. It has two characters that are a type of Fanny Price. First is Tom. He stands for everything that’s the opposite of the UHB. A self-professed socialist, Tom comes from the other side of the track. He wears a raincoat (albeit with a warm lining as he explains) in midwinter, and a ‘snob’ for public transit. Taxi? No, he’d rather walk.

Sure, his new found friends of the UHB know why. How many can afford to take the taxi as their usual means of transport and wears tux to parties? So, to their credit, despite knowing Tom might be from the opposite side of town, they receive him into their midst, especially as the girl Audrey likes him very much and wants him to help solve their, or her, ‘escort shortage’ to the debutante parties.

Audrey is a lover of books. She’s unpretentious, modest, and above all, a sensitive soul not unlike Fanny. In one scene, Audrey serves as a moral compass as the group gathers in the after party to a game that she disapproves of. That’s a Fanny incognito there. She insists on her stance despite everyone, Tom included, feels there’s nothing wrong with the game.

So there are the Austenesque parallels and types. You might be able to identify the Crawfords there too. The youthful characters are all serious in their viewpoints. One must give them credits. In their tux and gowns they discuss social theories. Therein lies Stillman’s gentle satire. While the sarcasm and humour is subtle, there are a few lines that are overt, lines I think Jane would have approved.

In this scene (above photo), Audrey and Tom discuss books. Audrey says Persuasion and Mansfield Park are her favorite Austen books, Tom is incredulous.

Tom:  Mansfield Park! You got to be kidding.

Audrey:  No.

Tom:  But it’s a notoriously bad book. Even Lionel Trilling – one of her
greatest admirers – thought that.

Audrey:  If Lionel Trilling thought that, he’s an idiot.

Jane probably would have thought, “Oh I wish I had written those lines.”

But wait, there’s more. Later in the party, Tom and Audrey continue to discuss Mansfield Park.

Audrey: You find Fanny Price unlikeable?

Tom: She sounds pretty unbearable, but I haven’t read the book.

Audrey: What?

Tom: You don’t have to have read a book to have an opinion on it. I
haven’t read the Bible either.

Audrey: What Jane Austen novels have you read?

Tom:  None. I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism. That way
you get the novelist’s idea as well as the critic’s thinking. With
fiction I can never forget none of that has really happened. It’s all
made up by the author.

Oh I can see Jane ROFL.

 

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Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

Stillman’s Love & Friendship: More than Book Illustration

Love & Friendship and Other Prospects

Mansfield Park: Jane Austen the Contrarian 

 

Stillman’s Love & Friendship: More than Book Illustration

Back in 2007, the Welsh-born film director Peter Greenaway made the following stark comment:

“Cinema is predicated on the 19th-century novel. We’re still illustrating Jane Austen novels — there are 41 films of Jane Austen novels in the world — what a waste of time.”

I’m afraid since then, must be to Greenaway’s disdain, more Jane Austen movie adaptations had come out. As recent as early this year, Greenaway had reiterated his stance with an even starker comment: “all film writers should be shot.

Not that he’s anti-Austen, or holds a grudge against Tolkien or Rowling… I don’t think, but that he is pushing for a non-text-based, purely visual medium for movies.

Well, I’m glad his view remains just that, a personal opinion, and that writer/director Whit Stillman had not become a casualty of such an incendiary thought.

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For thanks to Stillman, we have an intelligent, delightful and worthy adaptation of Jane Austen’s novella Lady Susan, a first for the author’s lesser known Juvenilia, apart from her famous six novels. The film is definitely not an illustrated book, but a worthy stand-alone cinematic production that Jane would approve.

As for dear Jane, I think she’d be pleased to know that her works are being cherished enough to be adapted into this modern invention called a movie two centuries later, and that in this post-modern era, we have a director by the name of Whit Stillman who’s enthused enough to turn her novella, written when she was still in her teenage years, into a movie production.

The epistolary novella “Lady Susan” was deemed unfinished and published posthumously. So this is a plus as Stillman could finished it for Jane, with an ending that’s aligned with the plot’s trajectory, and in a style that’s so well melded one would marvel at the perfect alchemy of Austenesque characters and language. Smartly borrowing the name of another of her novella “Love and Friendship”, Stillman toys with dear Jane’s uncontested approval.

While written in letters format, “Lady Susan” is highly entertaining. Austen’s talent is apparent on every page. How well she presents her characters merely through their written correspondences. Acerbic commentaries from an 18 year old? Hard to believe. But indeed, here are some lines describing Mr. Johnson (Stephen Fry), Lady Susan’s only friend Alicia’s (Chloë Sevigny) husband:

“My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a man of his age! just old enough to be formal, ungovernable, and to have the gout; too old to be agreeable, too young to die.” (Letter 29, Lady Susan Vernon to Mrs. Johnson)

Interestingly, Stillman has toned down Lady Susan’s language and made her a more amicable heroine. The above lines were shortened and delivered by Kate Beckinsale in a casual manner. Yes, turning the letters into movie scenes are tricky, crafting mere letter writers into flesh and blood can be challenging, something I hope Greenaway can appreciate.

Stillman has taken Love & Friendship to 21st C. audience with fast paced, short scenes. The settings are elegant, the period costumes appealing, overall, a fine cinematic production. It is an apt visual presentation of Austen’s ingenuity. Writing “Lady Susan” while merely 18 or 19, she had seen through the marriage system of her country, understood human nature and foibles, depicting her characters and the main heroine, no, anti-heroine, with piercing sarcasm and generosity.

Having read the novella first could be an advantage as the viewer knows exactly who the characters are and the backstory as the film begins. With the literary source in mind, the viewer can also have a heightened appreciation of the cinematic rendering and alterations needed to make it work as a movie. The fusion of Austen / Stillman humour is most delightful, punctuated with some whimsical rendering on screen that I won’t mention here but leave for viewers to enjoy.

Kate Beckinsale portrays Lady Susan with deadpan astuteness. Deadpan or dead-on, no matter, for Beckinsale is a fine Lady Susan, newly widowed, not too young to be gullible and definitely not too old to flirt for her own gains. Don’t blame her, for she has a sixteen year-old daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) to mind, and so, two eligible candidates who need to wed.

If one were to find fault, blame it on the social system allowing the female population only one track to go for sustainability, i.e. to find a husband. The ultimate goal of the marriage contract is more for finance than romance. (Maybe that’s why we love Pride and Prejudice so much, for its triumph of true love.) Here in this story, it’s a social milieu where love is remote and friendship useful. Lady Susan Vernon ultimately finds her conquest, never one to boast, just a project accomplished, all bottom lines met.

Stillman has a wonderful cast to work with, and they look like they had a lot of fun making the film, the most lively being Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). It must be a joy to be silly without restraint, yes, let it all out.

Alicia, Lady Susan’s only friend, is aptly played by Chloë Sevigny, who reunites with Kate Beckinsale from “The Last Days of Disco” (1998) where the two are the yuppie heroines under Stillman’s direction. Great to see the two friends in “Disco” have now emerged as allies yet again, this time in a comedy of manners with real Austen roots.

Stillman is a master of dialogues, and so’s Austen. In both the novella and the film, conversations make the characters. But mind you, Janeites know this, and it shows in Stillman’s film, Austen’s humour is not your roll on the floor laughing type of funny

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but a clever kind of jokes that elicits a knowing chuckle or a smile, ones that exude insight into human nature, ones that you’d want to jot down:

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And for those who have read the epistolary novella penned by a young female writer of the 18th century, one cannot help but marvel at her prodigious astuteness and now director Stillman’s revealing of her brilliant mind. A long time Austen ‘apologist’, Stillman’s previous work “Metropolitan” (1990) is unabashedly a “Mansfield Park” of the time. My favorite line in that movie is uttered by the Fanny Price parallel character Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina), when she is talking to Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) about one of her favorite Austen works, Mansfield Park. Tom has not read any Austen but feels qualified to criticize nonetheless:

Tom: But it’s a notoriously bad book. Even Lionel Trilling, one of her greatest admirer thought that.

Audrey: Well, if Lionel Trilling thought that, he’s an idiot.

(But of course, it was Tom who hasn’t read any Austen that has misread Trilling.)

That was Stillman’s debut film. Since “Metropolitan”, he had proven his mastery in the comedy of manners in our times… preppies, yuppies, and maybe someday I hope,  millennials. To say his oeuvre is a conglomeration of Woody Allen, Noah Baumbach, and Wes Anderson would be unfair, neglecting his own style of humour and social observations, although his works do leave traces of all the above.

When awards season comes, I anticipate the film to receive some nominations, specifically Adapted Screenplay, Set Design, Costumes and Hair, and perhaps directing.

Here’s my recommendation: read Jane’s novella Lady Susan first before watching the movie would probably reap the most enjoyment. Afterwards, there’s the bonus. Yes, Whit Stillman has wrapped it all up with the novel Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Was Entirely Vindicated published by Little, Brown and Co. in May, 2016. Icing on the cake.

Jane Austen doesn’t need a defender, but I’m sure she wouldn’t mind getting acknowledgement for her lesser known Juvenilia, some works started when she was only twelve. “Love & Friendship” is a first attempt and a worthy homage to her ingenuity. I’m glad there are many prospects. Whit Stillman and Jane Austen make one fine match indeed.

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Related posts on Ripple Effects:

Love & Friendship and Other Prospects

Too Much Jane?

Why We Read Jane Austen

Mansfield Park: Jane Austen the Contrarian

 

Love and Friendship and Other Prospects

Whit Stillman’s “Love & Friendship” (review coming soon on Ripples) opens up a whole new world of Jane Austen for modern day readers and viewers. All we’ve been familiar with are Austen’s six novels, with 60 plus adaptations of full features and TV series according to IMDb.

Based on Austen’s novella Lady Susan written likely when she was only 18 or 19, “Love & Friendship” is a first time movie adaptation of this lesser-known work. Director Stillman got the name from one of Austen’s short stories with one major alteration: &. The film was a big hit. It premiered at Sundance Film Festival this January to critical acclaims. Everywhere since, “Love & Friendship” has left audience fully entertained for 90 minutes. Surprising, or not, for it’s Whit Stillman’s work that’s a long time coming. A specialist in comedy of manners in our modern time, Stillman wrote the screenplay himself, even has it published as a new novel together with Austen’s original work, 2 in 1. Now that’s a must read. And as Stillman said in an interview :”I vastly prefer the kind of collaboration I had with Jane Austen to those living authors… She has no complaints! I can assure you she has no complaints. I know that for a fact.”

After the world was awakened to this relatively ‘unknown’ Austen work being brought to the big screen, now comes another one: “Sanditon”, Austen’s unfinished novel when she died in 1817. So much the better, with an unfinished novel, a screenwriter and director can have the freedom to use their creative flair to boundless possibilities.  (Note: in 1975, a ‘completed Sanditon’ was published, authored by ‘Another Lady’, a writer who chose to follow Jane’s step of anonymity.) This upcoming film adaptation, however, is written by a known name, British playwright / producer/ director Simon Reade, who has many titles adapted on the British stage. Of note is his adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, a sell out run at The Regents Park Open Air Theatre. Oscar nominated Charlotte Rampling will play dowager Lady Denham in a production helmed by Jim O’Hanlon, who directed the 2009 BBC TV version of Emma.

If Lady Susan and Sanditon can be adapted to the big screen, lots more can come. A treasure trove of unfilmed works await in Austen’s bibliography. The Watsons, short stories, even letters can be put into good use as movie ideas. Lots of prospects lining up:

Frederic and Elfrida
Jack and Alice
Edgar and Emma
Henry and Eliza
Love and Friendship
A History of England
The Three Sisters
Lesley Castle
Evelyn
Catherine, or the Bower
The Watsons

“Love & Friendship” could be kicking off a Jane Austen revival in the coming years.

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Just posted a new list of Books to Movie Adaptations coming out this year or in development on Shiny New Books Issue #10. CLICK HERE to read.