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Class Notes

Metropolitan captures the foibles of young people with old money.

"The context of [Mansfield Park] and nearly everything Jane Austen wrote is near-ridiculous from today's perspective," one young character lectures another early in the film Metropolitan.  "Has it ever occurred to you," the latter replies, "that today, looked at from Jane Austen's perspective, would look even worse?"

Finally available on DVD, Metropolitan is essentially an extension of this rebuttal. The 1990 debut by writer-director Whit Stillman (who subsequently completed his triptych with Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco), Metropolitan is a delightfully self-conscious anachronism, a touching comic rebuke of modern mores and manners told as the story of a vanishing class: the Protestant elite, the moneyed aristocracy, the preppies--or, as one character awkwardly dubs them, the UHB: "urban haute bourgeoisie."

The movie unfolds over the course of a debutante season in Manhattan, a few weeks straddling Christmas during which young women home from college are "introduced" to society at a series of fancy dress balls. Stillman is less concerned with these grand galas, however, than with the subsequent after-parties, small gatherings in one Upper East Side salon or another where the young ladies and their dates while away the nighttime hours carousing, playing games, and discussing their place in the universe. (The director's focus on these more intimate settings was mandated as much by expense as inclination: The budget for the entire film was just a few hundred thousand dollars.)

The surrogate with whom we explore this rarefied social enclave is Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), a callow but decent young man and self-imagined radical who, after attending one ball "almost accidentally" finds himself swept into a clique known as the "Sally Fowler Rat Pack"--or SFRP--for the deb in whose parents' home they typically hang out. An outsider both in terms of wealth (he and his divorced mom live in a small Upper West Side apartment) and ideology (he fancies himself a socialist), Tom initially resists his cooption by the SFRP. "It wouldn't be any great tragedy if some of these people lost their class prerogatives," he impoliticly observes to one of the very people he is disparaging. Yet gradually he warms to his adopted social milieu, and before long he, more even than his new friends, is striving to uphold the very aristocratic values he initially disdained.

It's easy to envision another filmmaker treating this material as the story of a young man of egalitarian disposition who, seduced by luxury and privilege, exchanges his democratic morals for a sense of elite entitlement--and, indeed, there are hints of this reading in Metropolitan. But Stillman's view of the old WASP establishment is more forgiving, even wistful, encompassing not only its decadence--talk about your fish in a barrel--but its decency as well, its sense of honor and virtue, learning and taste. (There's more than one mention of Veblen in the film.)

Stillman's characters are not just at, but seemingly from, a more innocent age. Young people with old money, they teeter between modernity and an anachronistic, half-imagined past. They recognize that their world--and with it perhaps their own relevance--is fast receding, and struggle with how to respond. Charlie (Taylor Nichols), the most philosophical (and most self-dramatizing) of the bunch, is obsessed with this obsolescence, declaring, "This is probably the last deb season as we know it," or, more succinctly, "We are all, in a sense, doomed." Audrey (Carolyn Farina), the Austen fan, loses herself in literature, adopting an almost nineteenth-century sense of propriety, while Cynthia (Isabelle Gillies) chooses the opposite path, an experiential journey of sex, drugs, and brutal honesty bordering on cruelty. Nick (the indispensable Christopher Eigeman) affects a marvelously witty air of sardonic snobbery. When, after a long disquisition on sartorial decline, Tom asks, "You're obviously talking about a lot more than just detachable collars," he smiles: "Yeah, I am."

Stillman sketches his characters with gentle humor, capturing not only their foibles and foolishnesses but the earnest intentions behind them. Complications and misunderstandings (some of them romantic) arise, but they are almost always the result of people doing what they imagine to be the right thing. By the end of the film, it is the figures with their heads furthest in the clouds--Tom, with his sophomoric socialism, Charlie, with his tragic class consciousness, and Audrey, with her archaic manners--who are revealed to be the most heroic.

By then, the SFRP has for all practical purposes dissolved. As the debutante season comes to a close, the group's amusements become ever more "modern": Bridge gives way to strip poker; discussions about God to games of "Truth"; cocktails, in one instance, to mescaline. The center cannot hold and, one by one, the group scatters. Nick is exiled to the home of a stepmother "of untrammeled malevolence." The girls abandon their erstwhile escorts for dates with real romantic potential. Even Audrey is persuaded by Cynthia to accompany her to a party at the Southampton home of Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe), a cad as indelible as any portrayed in film or literature. Stillman wryly presents Audrey's decision as a potential tragedy, one that supplies Metropolitan with its winsome, ironic climax. A film that began with its hero mocking the ridiculousness of Mansfield Park's central dilemma--whether it's ethical for a group of young people to put on a play--ends with him seeking to head off a moral crisis no less absurd, a young woman's attendance at a weekend house party. Somewhere, Jane Austen is laughing.

The Home Movies List: Whitticisms

Barcelona (1994). Stillman's second film, though the idea for it--drawn from his own experiences working in Spain--predated Metropolitan. (He surmised that it would be too expensive a project for an untested director.) Eigeman and Nichols again star, this time as mismatched expat cousins chasing Spanish ladies and defending America's reputation from Iberian insult. The conservative inclination that defined interpersonal politics in Metropolitan is here extended to geopolitics and the business world, with mixed results. The film is too diffuse and the seams, often stitched together by a strained voiceover from Nichols, are disappointingly evident. Fetching women come and go, but none comes to life as anything more than an object of fickle male desire. The film stumbles worst when it steps into thriller territory--there is a shooting, politically motivated and near-fatal--before awkwardly returning to Stillman's comfort zone of gentle irony.

The Last Days of Disco (1998). Stillman's third--and, sadly, still most recent--effort shares some of Barcelona's weaknesses and Metropolitan's strengths. Here, two young women (played by Chloe Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale) are inseparable despite their deep mutual irritation, and it is the men who wander haphazardly in and out, their respective roles and allegiances difficult to keep straight. Like Metropolitan, the film has a pleasantly elegiac tone, but this time its subject--the Manhattan party scene, circa Studio 54--could hardly be less suited to Stillman's conservative social impulses. When the characters wax rhapsodic about disco (a "movement," a "whole new era of music and social models") and their preferred dance venue ("the greatest club the world has ever seen," "what I've always dreamed of: cocktails, dancing, conversation, the exchange of ideas and points of view") the result is not elegy but parody. In the end, compelling evidence that not all nostalgias are created equal.