Love & Friendship
A lengthy sabbatical from filmmaking has clearly energized writer-director Whit Stillman, and if Love & Friendship is evidence, he has enough leftover vigor to spillover and whip long-dead, and long-enervated, authors into a frenzy as well. With this film, he redistricts the screen real estate of the Jane Austen adaptation – a genre long benighted by a paralyzing sense of respectability – toward an unhesitant embracement of her oft-misunderstood wickedness and lithe, animalistic verbal farce. Focusing on the conniving, frantic ambitions of sexual warfare subcutaneously thriving beneath the prim-and-proper rules and regulations of Victorian society, his new film feels like a vendetta against the decades of self-consciously airy beauty and antiseptic weightlessness infecting cultural assumptions and artistic interpretations of Austen and Victorian literature more broadly. With acerbic dialogue and a skewered, ruthlessly efficient visual sensibility, this is Austen set to kill. In Love & Friendship, it’s the scorching negativity that is infectious.
Stillman’s screenplay smuggles in an unauthorized, malcontented verbal tetanus underneath the bloated carcass of the prestige literary adaptation genre. While typical Austen adaptations strive for a myriad of ingress points to appeal to nearly every audience member in the world, Stillman’s vision trades domesticated ruby slippers for gloriously strutting, lung-puncturing stilettos. Most Austen films emphasize her austerity and placidity, but this is an active, roving, vicious film with the delightfully direct bluntness of Howard Hawks. Main character His Girl Susan (last name Vernon, played by Kate Beckinsale) expends the film less conforming to social propriety than using it as a weapon. Her lines aren’t delivered as expected – with the timid gloriousness of a deathbed confession. Instead, they’re surreptitious shards of searing discontent.
Like most Victorian-lit adaptations, Love & Friendship is explicitly an investigation of the businesslike cadence of insidious social propriety, but only here is it weaponized by a woman who invasively ricochets men and other women around the decorated halls of posh society in an attempt to accrue the social self-worth through a man’s pocketbook that society denies her right to achieve individually. Intravenously injecting herself into the lives of her brother-in-laws Reginald de Courcey (Xavier Samuel) and Charles (Justin Vernon), Love & Friendship is ultimately ribald and delightfully insurrectionist not only because of its scabrous vocal jabs but because it dares to break the ribs of sanctimony by aligning us with a woman who abuses the oppressive gender norms of the society around her to achieve whatever measure of personal satisfaction she can, claws and all. Achieving the delicate balance of recognizing the anxiety at the core of the story without denying the gossip-tinged fun it revels in, Love & Friendship palpably provides an outlet for a woman’s agency without villainizing her, all the while remaining acclimatized to the economic structures that construct her ostensibly diabolical actions to begin with.
Even around her comrade-in-commiseration Alicia (Chloe Sevigny) – whose aging husband played by Stephen Fry has avoided her agitated attempts to ensure his comeuppance – this film is deeply amenable to turning lighthearted rib-ticklers into conniving rib-breakers. Although it is assuredly Stillman’s writerly triumph more than his visual one, even the initially barren directing – about which it is easy to be nonplussed in the early goings – recompenses for its straightforward look by using the never-dawdling efficiency of the visuals to kindle a fire in the film’s loins. The hurtling, hoarse visual candor of the film – sans grandiloquence or grandstanding – vampirically siphons away the bespectacled take-me-seriously resplendence or beauty-awash gloriousness of the prestige genre for a film that is much more comfortable running with scissors, hoping for accidental damage, than placing child locks on them. The brazen simplicity of the style, tightened and coiled like a wonderfully small-scale thriller rather than cascading like a self-consciously “big” film, is part and parcel with the go-for-broke violence of the film’s punchy dialogue.
Ironically, by revealing the trouble-seeking antics and heretic social opprobrium of Austen at her most delectably pernicious, Love & Friendship saves her from decades of condemnation to the cinematic penitentiary of milquetoast beauty. With the romance scraped away, the dialogue cuts against the bones of the urgent survival matches and attrition-conflicts that seldom flicker in prestige cinema but which lie at the heart of many classic romance novels as well as Whitman’s haute bourgeoisie-disowning cinema. To quote Neil Young, having realized that Jane Austen’s reputation had spent years in the middle of the road, Stillman uses this film as an opportunity to throw itself into the ditch. By going for the concussion of the low-brow, it rescues the author from the doldrums of the dignified middlebrow.
Hermetically-sealed allegory is both a blessing and a curse in Yorgos Lanthimos’ debut English-language feature, a harshly-lined and not-so-cryptic story of a man, played by Colin Farrell with admirable if obvious restraint, who is forced into a hotel for single people in a world where not being in a relationship is an offense punishable with death, or at least scientific dehumanization. Given a mere 30 days to form a semblance of a human connection with a heterosexual mate lest he be expunged from the hotel (and human consciousness), the ennui-addled mating rituals (and in The Lobster, they are more than implicit in their ritualistic status) begin.
Unfortunately, Lanthimos’ one-size-fits-all aesthetic can vacillate back and forth between snugly perfect glove that accentuates all the fingers of his thematic discourse and a more suffocating iron maiden that leaves precious little room for the film to actually breathe. Of course, the torpid ice-ray of the style – all longitudinal and latitudinal lines and lengthy, silent, unmoving shots – is intentionally enervating, a reflection of the malaise of non-coital individualism as well as the dogmatic fist of coerced human connection. The Bergman and Antonioni cocktail is a moratorium on life, but Lanthimos isn’t as nuanced or judicious a filmmaker as either of those venerable death-cloaked auteurs who left life half-buried in the sand. Those directors infused their cinema with shifts, chokepoints, contractions of pain, and confining inflections that both closed doors for the characters and opened up the films to new possibilities (like the psychotic trauma and self-reflexive deviousness of Persona or the flickers of pop-art nerve-gas in Blow-Up).
These malleable flickers of life are a non-entity in The Lobster. To some extent, Lanthimos deserves credit for applying his aesthetic across the board to fit different character types; by using the same aesthetic for both the government and the rebels, their implicit symmetry is harshly intimated and then laid bare. Via pure aesthetics, The Lobster single-handedly destroys the rebellious anti-love liveliness of the ostensible anti-government forces outside the hotel; that we expect a more shaken-up aesthetic for the rebels and Lanthimos gifts us only stricken-dead lethargy tacitly evokes how lifeless their complete opposition to the possibility of any love in the world actually is. Then again, the observation isn’t especially astute; that a revolutionary force can slip into reactionary bluntness is about the oldest “take me seriously” nihilist trick in the book, and it has been abused by pragmatic, individualist liberal types to suppress radical social change for decades.
More importantly from a formalist perspective, the director’s buttoned-up aesthetic nearly stretches itself thin until it turns the controlled chaos of people desperately in search of a mate into an enervated, almost parodic level of lethargy. The people may be grievously wounded, but that doesn’t mean the film has to be. At some point, it feels a tad like Lanthimos’ acerbic aesthetic is trying to ingratiate itself to arthouse audiences who fall head over heels for this sort of too-carefully negotiated filmmaking, buttressed by Thimios Bakatakis’ heavily mannered, drained-down cinematography that serves as a presage of emotional malaise. Lanthimos’ style lacks the liberating sense of possibility to fluctuate as Farrell investigates a genuine connection with a woman played by Rachel Weisz.
Not that The Lobster is a failure by any means; as an allegorical fable, it’s nearly aces, and the craft is indelible if slightly too homogeneous, an omen of human ambivalence for a increasingly insular time where the social ritual of love is increasingly a foisted-upon marker of cultural capital rather than a reminder of the insatiable pang for connection. A cinematic fable will never be a luxury we can ill afford, and Lanthimos’ gift for astringent comedy and self-deprecating absurdism is nigh-incredible (the oppressive digital cinematography also nicely evokes the artifice of both the mating hotel and the baleful forest rebel-stronghold outside). But The Lobster is a little too composed to revel in the cinematic blood and sinew and bones that enliven the sharpest, most incisive films in any age.
Of course, the vicious composition and lifelessness of the film is also, you know, the point, but that’s a cop-out argument in light of the films (You, The Living comes to mind, or anything by Bergman or Antonioni) that have come and gone before in the hyper-curated style and moved beyond film-as-mausoleum and into legitimately philosophical realms of abrasive dream logic. The lifelessness of The Lobster, in comparison, never evolves beyond the bluntest parade of boxed-in, rectangular shots, sort of like what a freshman in film school would cart out if they were told to make a Euro-art film (time will tell if The Lobster is also a parody of this style of filmmaking, a self-reflective critique wherein the film itself has been styled as though it were produced by the society it depicts).
Filmmakers like Antonioni (the obvious reference point for The Lobster, if Antonioni was friends with Monty Python) could variegate even the most nominally ascetic styles, but The Lobster is pulling the same rabbit out of its hat from minute one to minute end. It’s a great looking rabbit, don’t get me wrong, but The Lobster isn’t as vigorous a cinematic workout as it might have been, and the question of whether Lanthimos’ style is in on the joke or is the joke remains in desperate need of answering.
The counter-narrative to the claim that the film is defiant in its “weirdness” is that its strange aches are only ever superficial and surface-level; a truly, obstinately strange work should perturb, alienate, estrange, and ultimately enlighten through extreme mental wrestling, frustration, and interrogation. A weird work – see Renoir, Tarkovsky, Malick, Herzog, Cassavetes – should construct its own interpretive consciousness, its own mental state of being. It should be unstable, always in danger of falling apart. The Lobster’s aesthetic is less that of an art film than a parody of an art film, a conception of what an art film ought to be. It is too static – not physically, but imaginatively and ideologically – to truly destabilize the mind. Defining strangeness as a narrative about people being turned into animals is a little like reducing Guernica to a masterpiece because it features a bull without commenting on its masterly and far more important expression of mental and physical space as deeply unresolved and unfinished sensorial experiences. The former calcifies an unsettled perceptual consciousness into a conceptual trick born out of abstract signifiers and significations that exist independent of the artwork, reducing the art to a delivery mechanism for the “bull” symbol or the “lobster” symbol. It’s a little like art cinema Muzak: a slick veneer or respectability as a death-mask version of the living and breathing consciousness of art. It chisels its ideas in stone and follows them like a recipe, lacking any of the impetuousness and restlessness of a truly dangerous consciousness that has never finished what it wants to say. Sterling it may be in some respects, but The Lobster has the whiff of a too-dignified proverb rather than a fully-featured dissertation. It is a film too complete in its assumptions, too prefigured in its thoughts, and too aware of its ideas to ever entertain a stray thougtht or an unstable moment.