Kate Beckinsale’s masterful performance as the charming but amoral Lady Susan Vernon in Whit Stillman’s hilarious Jane Austen adaptation Love & Friendship is a rare cinematic experience. Its memory stays with you long after viewing the film. While Stillman’s screenplay takes its inspiration, and plunders all the best lines, from Austen’s Lady Susan, her epistolary account of Susan, he has suggestively given his own version a title from another piece of Austen’s juvenilia: “Love & Freindship” [sic].
The “friendship” in the title of his film ostensibly refers to the relationship Lady Susan has with her confidant Mrs. Alicia Johnson (played by Chloë Sevigny), the only other soul who really knows her, and with whom she discusses her “love” affairs. These “love” affairs include not just finding a husband, whether for herself or for her daughter, but also adultery.
Aristotle famously defined true friendship as being unlike the lesser “friendships” founded on utility or pleasure. True friendship is the type of friendship that is founded on the mutual pursuit of virtue — which would immediately disqualify the highly refined wickedness shared by Susan and Alicia. The title of the film thus immediately announces an irony with which all the events of the story will be suffused, as Lady Susan expertly uses her charm to simulate virtue in a diabolical way. Her schemes never fail to succeed, thanks to her unmatched ability at gaslighting others.
The entire cast is superb, but the actor who comes closest to Beckinsale in completely winning viewers’ affections is Tom Bennett, who plays Sir James Martin, a dimwitted aristocrat who supplies the audience with endless laugh-out-loud opportunities. When he arrives at Churchill Castle, the estate in Surrey of Charles and Catherine Vernon (the brother and sister-in-law of Lady Susan’s late husband), Sir James punctuates almost every phrase with a laugh, and offers silly comments: “Churchill? That’s how you say it? All-together that way? … Churchill… That explains a great deal. I had heard ‘church’ and ‘hill’—but I couldn’t find either… All I saw was this big house.”
As he tries to court Lady Susan’s daughter, Frederica, we witness Sir James speak of there being “Twelve Commandments”: “So, Frederica, you read both poetry and verse? In this I believe you take after your mother, who knows a great many things. Just yesterday she cited to me a story from the Bible about a very wise king. This reminded me of many such accounts one learns in childhood. Perhaps the most significant in forming one’s principles is that of the old prophet who came down from the mount with tablets bearing the Twelve Commandments—which our Lord has taught us to obey without fail.”
Part of the comedy of the scene is that, earlier on, Lady Susan alone with Frederica had upbraided her daughter for her resistance to the idea of marrying Sir James (and thereby securing “a life of comfort” for herself and her mother). She had quizzed her daughter about the Fourth Commandment, and Frederica didn’t know it was: “Honour—Thy—Father—And—Mother” (as Lady Susan emphatically enunciates). When Frederica protested, “I know the Commandments—but not their order”, her mother retorted: “See: This is what comes of an irregular education!”
Part of the brilliance of the film is the way these comic episodes are integrated with the serious themes of the story. When eligible bachelor Reginald DeCourcy, Catherine’s young and handsome brother, corrects Sir James about the “Twelve Commandments” (“Excuse me, I believe there were only Ten”), we learn something important for interpreting Stillman’s entire film. The key lies here in Sir James’ reply: “Oh really? Only Ten must be obeyed? Well, then… which two to take off? Perhaps the one about the Sabbath. I prefer to hunt.”
While the line is played for laughs in the mouth of Sir James, it also serves to highlight the theme of how religion optionally functions in the lives of these aristocrats. Lady Susan, for example, uses the Fourth Commandment to manipulate her daughter into obeying her choice for a husband. Further, while Sir James made his highly memorable entrance by stating that he can’t find the “church” at Churchill, his comment acquires a larger thematic significance when we learn there is in fact a church on the estate, although it is “more chapel in scale and lay in a dale, separated from the rest of Churchill’s park by a high stone wall and a wood, rendering it quite invisible from the road” (as Stillman describes it in the novel version he wrote of the film, from which I quote throughout this review: Love & Friendship: In Which Jane Austen’s Lady Susan Vernon Is Entirely Vindicated [Little, Brown and Company, 2016]).
It is this small church that becomes our final destination at the end of the film: namely, the place where a wedding (this is a Jane Austen story, after all) will take place. Given this fact, the foolish remarks of Sir James show themselves to possess, in addition to their comic value, also an ironic significance. A full appreciation of Stillman’s careful art exhibited on this point is possible once we recognize that Sir James functions as a “holy fool” whose apparently ridiculous remarks contain a deeper wisdom.
For those foggy on the notion, Hans Urs von Balthasar, in Volume V (The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age) of The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics (Ignatius Press, 1991) has a magnificent discussion of the history of the “holy fool” as a literary figure. First of all, I think of Susan’s daughter Frederica singing “Love Will Find Out the Way” at the end of the film when I hear Balthasar say: “The hallmark of reality, in contrast to the dreary ‘truth’ of philosophers and moralists but also of theologians, ascetics, ecclesiastics and monks, is everything that goes by the name of ‘folly’: everything that lies beneath the mind and in which it is rooted: all that is vital, passionate, irrational about love’s and friendship’s choices, the ‘splendour of youth’ in its perishability”.
But above all, I think of Sir James as Balthasar continues: “On the other hand, folly is also everything that lies above the mind: all that is gratuitous, unfathomable, playful, grace-ful; it is because of all this that folly is a goddess and at home in the world of the gods. The deeper, Christian meaning of this supra-rational folly is the incomprehensible making straight of the crooked and ultimately the outplaying of sin by grace”. I think of Sir James, because it is this “holy fool” who gives us the ability to interpret how Lady Susan’s triumph at the end of the story may be viewed with the perfect irony that the title of the film announces.
With his observation that he can’t find the “church” at Churchill, for example, the “holy fool” Sir James is pointing beyond Lady Susan’s own ideas of of “love” and “friendship”, which are counterfeit versions of the true exemplars: namely, “love of God” and “love of neighbor”. The “love of God”, which may be shown by the keeping of the Sabbath in Churchill’s little church, is also mirrored in the grand sacrament of matrimony, about which Charles Vernon observes (when the film’s concluding marriage is announced, with these lines that get a laugh from the dramatic context, but which also ironically point beyond the scene to the deeper story’s serious theme, i.e., the “love of God”): “The heart is an instrument we possess but do not truly know. Human love partakes of the divine, or at least has in my case.”
As for the “love of neighbor”, we may note that Thomas Aquinas defines “charity” as “the friendship of man for God” (Summa Theologiae II-II, q.23, a1). Hence, we can see more deeply into the significance of the title of film, Love & Friendship, when we observe what Lady Susan substitutes in place of marriage’s special mirror of the “love of God” and in place of true friendship’s “love of neighbor”. Lady Susan’s own conceptions make visible only the ironic counterpoints to the real things.
Because of the almost total eclipse of real “love and friendship” in her aristocratic world of comfort and deception, it is only Sir James’ buffoonery that breaks through to us with foolish wisdom. To wit: if you think about it, there actually are Twelve Commandments—ten via Moses, and two from Christ: “Jesus said to him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart and thy whole soul and thy whole mind. This is the greatest of the commandments, and the first. And the second, its like, is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” (Matthew 22:37–39) Ten plus these Two equals Twelve!
Sir James’ “error”, then, with regard to the numbering of the commandments, thus conceals a profounder wisdom about what really matters most: namely, love and friendship—rightly understood. With a rightly “foolish” understanding, one could presumably know which commandments it is okay “to take off” the list, thereby allowing one to pluck grain (or to go hunting) on the Sabbath.
The numbering of the commandments is thus an integral part of the film’s secret seriousness as well as an unmistakably recurring comic theme. When with Churchill’s young curate Frederica discusses her mother’s use of the Fourth Commandment to bludgeon her into an unwanted marriage, he corrects her numbering and tells her that she really refers to the Fifth Commandment: “It’s the Church of Rome that has it as the Fourth,” he says. So, where the curate and Lady Susan can’t agree on the numbering, it seems only the “holy fool” is able to reckon what really counts.
Part One of Stillman’s novel version of the film is entitled, “The 9th Commandment”; on its first page, Exodus 20:16 and John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion are quoted to establish the theme of “false-witness”. This cleverly points to the habitual lying that Lady Susan deploys in order to accomplish her grand designs. Her greatest skill undoubtedly lies in her constant violations of this commandment, done with her trademark charm and panache.
Yet a deeper layer of irony is revealed if we realize “the Church of Rome” numbers the false-witness prohibition, not as the Ninth, but as the Eighth Commandment (for example, in St. Augustine of Hippo and the Catechism of the Catholic Church). The Ninth Commandment for “the Church of Rome” is actually the prohibition on carnal concupiscence (“Thou shalt not covet…”), which more than anything else characterizes Lady Susan’s most habitual manner of “love”. For Lady Susan, “love and friendship” is neither the “love of God” mirrored in matrimony, nor the “love of neighbor” that expresses friendship with God as the charity that loves somebody else as “an other self” (to quote another formulation of Aristotle on true friendship). Rather, Lady Susan’s hidden self is exposed by the multiple ironies of the film as being nothing but her own selfish “love of self”, the love of the basest sort. Self-imposed, it bars her from any authentic “love and friendship”.
For this reason, Churchill’s “hill” is still sought for by our “holy fool” Sir James at the end of the story. He says: “So—here’s the Church! But, where’s the hill? Don’t see it.” Given the thematic recurrence of how to enumerate and keep the Ten Commandments, we might associate this “hill” with the “mount” from which Moses descended with the tablets. But given that we have learned there are Twelve Commandments, we are also invited to think of the “mount” upon which Christ taught the Sermon on the Mount. In other words, do we agree with Christ that “all the law and the prophets depend” on the “two commandments” (of “love and friendship”)? In his Sermon, Christ says: “You are the light of the world; a city cannot be hidden if it is built on a mountain-top.” (Matthew 5:14; note the same Greek word here translated as “mountain-top” is translated elsewhere as “mount”—or “hill”). The deeper import of Sir James’s final question, then, seems to be an urgent request for visible examples of “love of neighbor as thy self” to be exhibited—by a city of charity, shining on a hill.
While neither Jane Austen’s Lady Susan nor Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship can unveil such a truly friendly beacon of hope (such ironic comedy can only suggest it), Stillman’s version of the story nonetheless offers a completely realized version of what Austen only suggests as a fitting ending. In this film, the loving bridegroom offers a poem in praise of his bride at the end. As an artistic stroke of genius, Stillman puts lines in that man’s mouth that we could interpret merely ironically (given our knowledge of Lady Susan and her mere simulation of virtue) or that we could interpret as true believers in the Gospel heralded in this film by the “holy fool” Sir James. Through his eyes, may one not glimpse the most blessed promise of virtuous youth?
“Blest tho’ she is with ev’ry human grace,
The mien engaging, and bewitching face,
Yet still an higher beauty is her care,
Virtue, the charm that most adorns the fair.”