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Two films have recently opened, Love & Friendship and The Measure of a Man, that both deal with issues of class, and I don’t mean the “you have no” kind, but class as in upper, lower and all things in between.
Whit Stillman, the cinematic chronicler of the sons and daughters of the upper crust, began his career with Metropolitan, a character study of a group of the haves and what happens when they end up with a have less over Christmas break, the last year before everything went to hell and fell apart after sex, drugs and rock and roll took over and it all went to pot (pardon the pun).
It was a wonderful début, suggesting that a new and unique voice had arrived on the independent scene. He followed that up with two even better films, Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco.
He, then, well, disappeared for a while, which was both a puzzlement and a disappointment, only to return, years later, with a new film.
Stillman is certainly not the first to do this. Robert Altman ran away to Broadway for a bit after Popeye, to return a couple of years later with Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. Terrence Malick disappeared into the halls of academia after Days of Heaven, not reappearing until twenty years later with The Thin Red Line. The impression, whether accurate or not, was that both had left until they could make their movies their way without interference.
I don’t know if Stillman’s reasons were the same, but thirteen years after his last film, he returned with Damsels in Distress. Unfortunately, it didn’t really work due to a faulty structure and a lack of a strong focus.
Now he’s again back again with Love & Friendship, a period piece based on Jane Austen’s epistolary novel Lady Susan. Would that this had been his comeback film. Though the movie is hit and miss, when it works, it’s as good as anything he’s done. When it doesn’t, well, it just doesn’t.
Love & Friendship plays like a Restoration comedy version of Austen’s work. The dialog is witty and the quips come quickly, and the plotting comes at us in frantic twists and turns, all falling just this side of farce.
It even opens like a play in which all the characters are introduced in text on screen as they might appear in a playbill. In addition, the first scene is full of exposition, setting everything up, though at a speed that if you blink, you might miss an important bit of information.
As a whole, the movie has its pros and cons. It is at times a bit stagey. The opening scene is not the only time people relate something that happens off stage, which tends to slow down the forward momentum at times. And some of the plot turns are a bit clunkily done. At times, one can’t help but wonder if one more rewrite might have been in order.
And it has its share of actors who can’t quite get the style down. Some seem simply adrift when it comes to how to speak the dialog (Chloe Sevigny feels especially lost at sea). Others go in and out (Xavier Samuel).
However, perhaps we should celebrate what does work. Besides the splendid Masterpiece Theatre quality of costumes and sets, we have some wonderful performances by people who have no problem in speaking Victorian English as if it were their native language.
Many of these performances are given by long time veterans of stage and screen, like Jemma Redgrave, James Fleet and Stephen Fry. They’re a pleasure to watch due to their ease with the roles. They’re so relaxing whenever they appear.
Kate Beckinsall plays the lead, Lady Susan, a sociopath of the highest order, who like all good sociopaths have no idea they are a member of that tribe. Her long speeches roll trippingly off her tongue and she rules the screen as if she were she who must be obeyed. And she hops from one lie to the other, and one devious plot machination to another, as if she were a bee collecting pollen (perhaps not a fair metaphor since the queen stays home and lets all the others do the work).
However, even she is out done by Tom Bennett as an upper class twit of epic proportions. Gouache, lacking a modicum of intelligence, socially awkward for being socially awkward, he’s so unrelentingly cheerful, you don’t know whether to love him or smack him. He steals every scene he is in.
I do feel that the morality of the story is a bit odd. Lady Susan is basically the same character as the Marquise in Dangerous Liaisons. But while the audience is made to feel the moral bankruptcy of the Marquise and the tragedy she causes, Lady Susan gets little more than a wink and a nod, while the real criticism is saved for Sir James Martin, the aforementioned twit.
But Sir James is not mean or malicious, just awkward and unaware. I found it a little queasy watching what happens to him, as if I was expected to laugh at the weakling who just got thrashed by the schoolyard bully.
Still, it’s good to have Stillman back.
The Measure of a Man is basically a character study over a few months in the life of a middle class laborer who finds himself suddenly unemployed and must navigate the various bureaucratic hurdles to getting enough relief while first trying to land a new job, and then training in a security position at a Target like store.
The plot is basically a series of scenes shot with a hand held camera, the kind that makes the film jiggle, done cineme verité/Ken Loach style, consisting of our hero either being humiliated or his participation in humiliating someone else.
Much of the movie is powerful. The filmmakers (screenwriter Olivier Gorce and writer/director Stéphane Brize) are expert at showing what is wrong with the system. It’s difficult not to feel the sting of humiliation everyone goes through. The strongest scenes are probably the ones where shoplifters are taken to a private room and made to account and atone for their sin as well as similar ones where fellow workers are treated like shoplifters for minor infractions. This is made even more upsetting in that the workers are only confronted when the higher ups need to lay off more people since not enough are taking early retirement. They just can’t fire workers, so they watch and wait for a cause, making our hero an unwilling collaborator.
I’m not convinced the film completely works, though. The filmmakers may have over manipulated the situation by giving our hero a special needs child. In addition, the individual scenes go on for so long, it becomes a little hard to tell who the real bullies are, who is doing most of the humiliating, the filmmakers or the system.
But more importantly, The Measure of a Man is one of those films that are great when it comes to showing what is wrong with the system, but have no alternative to proffer. And yet they shout accusatorily and angrily at those in charge for not doing something even the filmmakers can’t.
Which leaves the question, is the system at fault, or is this just part of the existential anguish of what it means to be human?
But in the end, the whole thing is held together by the empathetic and humble performance of Vincent Lindon in the central role. He plays along, accepting the slings and arrows with good humor and infinite patience, all the while daggers of pain shoot from his eyes.
Winner of Best Actor at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival and Best Actor at the 2016 Césars.