Woody Allen is not comfortable at glitzy movie premieres, nor is Whit Stillman, but the filmmakers are the stars of opulent events funded by Amazon this week and next. The purpose is to trumpet Amazon’s invasion into film production and distribution (yes, even theatrical), and the corporate giant doesn’t seem fazed by the cost.
The Woody party in Cannes is aimed at promoting Café Society, a period picture about 1930s Hollywood starring Kristen Stewart and Jesse Eisenberg, which will be the opening-night film at the festival but out of competition. The Whit parties in Los Angeles and New York this week herald the opening of Love & Friendship, which is loosely based on a Jane Austen novella written in 1794.
Although less machine-like in his productivity, Stillman’s career is as idiosyncratic as Woody’s, or indeed as the characters is his films. As Roger Ebert once wrote, “If F. Scott Fitzgerald were to return to life, he would feel at home in a Whit Stillman movie.” That likely would apply to Love & Friendship, a deftly crafted film about 18th century manners and social norms. In his characteristically wry comments before the screening, Stillman described his film as “profound and theological.” In fact, it is about a pathologically manipulative woman who, despite meager resources, runs the lives of the doting men around her.
Jane Austen is a star in Stillman’s literary universe, but piecing together a film based on an unfinished 18th century novella, titled Lady Susan, meant creating a patchwork of Irish, French and Canadian funding, including Roadside Entertainment in the U.S. The increasingly voracious Amazon signed on last under new guidelines allowing theatrical distribution (the film opens May 13). At the opening-night festivities, Roy Price, Amazon’s movie chief, announced to his audience that a movie like Love & Friendship embodied his “cinematic fantasy world.” Price clearly does not aspire to invading the superhero space.
Nor, for that matter, does Stillman. The 64-year-old director’s work has spanned Metropolitan, Barcelona, The Last Days of Disco and The Cosmopolitans, with the latter scheduled also to become a pan-European TV series that Amazon will finance and Stillman will direct. In addition to Love & Friendship, which stars Kate Beckensale, Stillman simultaneously is promoting his novel, in which Lady Susan’s nephew re-spins the story in clearer narrative form and vindicates the narrator. Stillman acknowledges that Austen’s original version was marginally unreadable, structured as a series of rather quarrelsome letters.
Yet Stillman relishes Austen, and so do many of the filmgoers who have seen screenings of Love & Friendship, albeit a rather elitist and literary following. Mindful of his rather extensive cast of characters, Stillman introduces his principals with subtitles, some facetious, as though to remind audiences to retain a bemused detachment from the proceedings.
Stillman himself is a soft-spoken, gracious man who hails from a New York family that was strong on education but meager on wealth. Drawing on his past, he has managed to inhabit his films with characters who are as waspy and class conscious as Woody Allen’s are ethnic and unkempt. He has never had the “big hit” of an Annie Hal, but, on the other hand, has not sustained the chain of box office disappointments that Woody has experienced during the past few years.
Woody’s problems have not constrained Amazon from paying an advance of $15 million for a Woody film nor from committing to a Woody TV series that supposedly will feature a cast ranging from Elaine May to Miley Cyrus. Amazon, it seems, is bent on designing what its chief identifies as his own “fastasy world” in film and TV. And he seems to enjoy tossing some big bucks to celebrate his adventures.
The meticulously mannered Stillman has made six films during the past 25 years, a considerable output for a man who defies all the career mandates of present-day Hollywood. A New Yorker, Stillman himself lives in Paris