Metropolitan Whit Stillman

Twenty-five years after it was made, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan looks very much like an artifact from another time. In one scene, hero Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) leans from a balcony of New York’s St. Regis Hotel and predicts that it will soon be torn down. In fact, the St. Regis still flourishes, but other features of Metropolitan belong decidedly to yesterday. The Scribners and Doubleday bookstores seen in the film are both long gone—where now can a curious young Manhattanite like Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina) look for a volume on the French social theorist Charles Fourier? Also gone is the institution of letter-writing—one discussion concerns the proprieties of holding onto the correspondence you receive from friends—and the scene in which a group of young socialites wonder after a party where one of their pals has got to would now simply be unimaginable. Today, even these poised young fogeys would be WhatsApping each other their whereabouts non-stop.

But the whole point of Metropolitan 25 years ago was that, even back then, it was a film out of time—and its characters were from another era, or so they saw themselves. The film’s young things might easily, give or take a few social niceties, have stepped out of a novel by Edith Wharton (it’s no accident that Carolyn Farina was later cast in Martin Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence), or indeed by Jane Austen, whose novels they sometimes discuss heatedly. Tom airs his dislike for Mansfield Park on the basis of Lionel Trilling’s criticism of it, without having read the novel himself. In this sense, the film is actually quite prescient, anticipating by 17 years the defense of Tom’s position by French critic Pierre Bayard in his (dandyish, yet highly serious) How to Talk About Books That You Haven’t Read. Indeed, Metropolitan is ahead of its time in the way that films can be when they’re not expressly attempting to be either futuristic or of their moment: among other things, its soundtrack offers a very early sighting of what would become the Nineties lounge-music vogue, with its breezy orchestrations and cha-chas.

Just for context: Metropolitan came out in the year of Wild at Heart, GoodFellas, and The Godfather Part III, and played in Sundance alongside Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth, Maggie Greenwald’s The Kill-Off, and Reginald Hudlin’s Kid ’N Play vehicle House Party (you could call Metropolitan the rich white kids’ House Party). Not a year, then, in which you saw many pearl-decked debutantes and their wing-collared beaux on screen. But in Stillman’s film, these people are aware of being anachronisms—one of them ponders that they might be about to witness the very last “deb season,” while Charlie (Taylor Nichols), the anguished philosopher of the film’s clique, muses on the question of “downward social mobility”: “We’re doomed . . . That’s the direction we’re headed . . . the whole preppie class.” Later in the film, a world-weary older man—he could be one of these same fellows, decades on—tells Tom and Charlie that doom doesn’t come into it where their class is concerned: “We simply fail without being doomed.”

Metropolitan Whit Stillman

Metropolitan is a melancholic lament for not-quite-doomed youth—a self-styled new “lost generation” that isn’t really lost, but might just never have a purpose. The film has a surprisingly end-of-the-line flavor, given that it’s a debut feature. Here is a rueful elegy from a writer-director who was already 38 when he made the movie, and who knew its patrician milieu fairly well: Stillman’s IMDb entry describes him as “the son of a impoverished debutante.” Stillman looked until recently as if he would become one of the great lost voices of American cinema. There was a 13-year gap between his third feature The Last Days of Disco (98) and the extraordinary campus comedy Damsels in Distress (11), a scintillating blast of poised mischief; during that period, he claimed that he was considering biding his time between projects by becoming a yacht broker. Since then, he has made a pilot for Amazon TV, The Cosmopolitans,­ which—from the title on—feels like a knowing Parisian variation on Metropolitan, with similar bickering over social protocol and even with similar dance moves at the parties, albeit to groovier music.

That Stillman has lately been shooting his own Jane Austen adaptation Love and Friendship—from the novella Lady Susan—makes perfect sense, given that his films’ brittle social interplay, concern with the deep meanings of words and gestures, and the lapidary arrangement of words into phrases of perfect poise are right in the Austen lineage. Take Metropolitan’s opening lines, as Audrey’s mother—one of the rare older adults in a film whose characters are essentially overgrown children—says to her weeping daughter: “You mustn’t listen to what your younger brother says. I can’t think of anyone who’s less an authority on female anatomy.” Metropolitan, indeed, is one of the few New York comedies in which the sharp-edged shards of dialogue can’t be described as “one-liners,” or even as bons mots as such. Rather, the characters—whether they know it or not, and whether the content is sharp or super-gauche—are somewhat prone to coming up with aperçus.

Set in New York over a Christmas vacation “not so long ago,” as the opening intertitle says, the film follows Tom, a polite, pleasant, altogether presentable young man. Even though his “economic resources are limited” (a problem signaled by his wearing an autumn raincoat in winter) he is absorbed by a group of well-heeled young types who meet at the home of their friend Sally Fowler (Dylan Hundley), and are therefore known as the “Sally Fowler Rat Pack.” These young folk are “UHBs”—“Urban Haute Bourgeoisie”—an acronym proposed by Charlie as a more precise alternative to “preppies.”

Metropolitan Whit Stillman

Although they recognize him as an outsider (“A West Sider is among us”), Tom is dragooned into accompanying this circle to various social occasions—he’s needed because there’s a critical shortage of escorts on the deb circuit. Mostly, however, the gang sit around Sally’s parents apartment, playing genteel party games and talking elegantly (or, at least, like the often clueless but articulate Parisians in Eric Rohmer’s films, urbanely) while sitting or standing in stiff but perfectly arranged group tableaux. Different from the others in his interest in agrarian socialism and commitment to the thinking of Fourier, Tom listens to the gossip of the group’s prissy, sometimes lovably loathsome lead male and occasional top-hat wearer Nick (Chris Eigeman, this film’s answer to the young Fabrice Luchini). He also falls for charming, incorruptible ingénue Audrey. It’s altogether a charming, personable group, and comically innocent; apart from vampish Cynthia (Isabel Gillies), the group is curiously asexual. But then, the comedy lies in their all being essentially children in young adult bodies: the film is a tragic-comic threnody for childhood’s end.

Their social life gets a little claustrophobic—for most of the film, the gang are no more able to venture beyond Sally’s apartment than Buñuel’s diners are able to go home in The Exterminating Angel. But then the group disintegrates. Left alone, Tom and Charlie hearken wide-eyed to the wisdom of that older, sadder man, then descend from their enclosed uptown Valhalla to everyday real-world Manhattan, a realm of car-rental offices (only neither boy has a driving license) and diners (when Charlie is seen in the same shot as a bottle of Heinz tomato ketchup, it’s as if worlds have collided). The film culminates with the duo dashing to the Hamptons to save Audrey’s imperiled virtue, believing her to have fallen into the clutches of notorious Byronic rake Rick von Sloneker, a pony-tailed pantie-collector and, worse yet, an actual baron (“The titled aristocracy,” sneers Nick, “are the scum of the earth”).

A quarter-century on, Metropolitan has become a very different film. Once a movie about young people, it now feels—especially if you saw it back then—like a movie about eternally young people, these characters’ freshness and naïveté preserved in the warmly glowing amber of a bygone Manhattan winter. (The feeling that its characters were fated never to age is accentuated by the fact that the actors haven’t been very visible since, although some of those who didn’t become attorneys or religious ministers did establish acting careers, notably Eigeman and Nichols).

Metropolitan Whit Stillman

Strangest now is the thought of these privileged young people exuding a certain gentleness and humility, despite their manifest snobbery (there’s nothing in the film so pithily ironic as Sally’s lofty pronouncement, “I can’t stand snobbery or snobbish attitudes of any kind”). Grieving over their feeling of obsolescence, these young people do not exude a sense of entitlement—at least, they don’t feel entitled to an eternal unchallenged existence. In fact, this strain of gilded youth has not died away, but become stronger and more arrogant. Today, it’s hard to see young men in wing collars without thinking that a generation of such posh boys (the notorious 1988 members of Oxford University’s alpha-snob Bullingdon Club) now rule Britain, and certainly don’t see themselves or their kind doomed to extinction any time soon.

But Stillman’s film neither demolishes its pampered class nor indulges it in the manner of reactionary nostalgia like Downton Abbey. Metropolitan ends with three of its characters on a roadside, out of money, thumbing a ride, wiser and happier; it’s a film about the wealthy that an agrarian socialist need not object to. Above all, it’s a film that has lasted—changed, but lasted. It’s good to have it, and Whit Stillman, back. Yachting brokerage’s loss is cinema’s gain.