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Independent Film: Metropolitan, Whit Stillman (1990)

Have you ever wondered how the other half lives or what goes on at those dazzling high society gatherings? Maybe you’re like Tom Townsend then. Unlike Tom though many of us may never know what that is like. But through Tom we can and that is basically the basis of 1990’s Metropolitan.

If you’re a fellow film fan who keeps up to date on things, then you know we had the glorious period of the Barnes & Noble Criterion sale back in November. A lovely time because compared to the sale off the official Criterion site you had over a month to contemplate a purchase. I say this because on this go around one of my purchases was the Whit Stillman boxset (Metropolitan, The Last Days of Disco and Barcelona). I have for some time contemplated getting Stillman, but for some reason haven’t. Then as I was making up my list I couldn’t ignore the boxset that seemed to be calling to me.

Metropolitan is a 1990 film concerning the lives of young socialites in Manhattan during the late 1980s. It was the debut film by Whit Stillman as director and screenwriter. The first in a trilogy of films he made throughout the 1990s that concerned the subjects of life, love and the relationships between these types of people. I was quite taken with the film, and couldn’t help but instantly fall in love with it.

This is a very dialogue heavy film; the importance is not concerned with plot or traditional story points as it is in people and words. We go along through a series of vignettes which are comprised of people in deep or light conversation. And it is so enticing. You feel as if you as the viewer are just another partygoer that is sitting in the corner nursing a drink, and watching these things unfold. I say that because this film does such a fantastic job of bringing you in and making you feel truly invested in the snapshot of this world, and the varied people that inhabit it.

“Stillman makes it feel like you are reading a book instead of merely watching a film.”

Stillman is very gifted at world building and character depth. Each character is brimming with a unique personality, no matter if they are a more prominent character or not. This may go back to his background with writing, but Stillman makes it feel like you are reading a book instead of merely watching a film, and in that way it is such a cozy watch.

We begin the film with Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) who is a modest student from Princeton University and is not part of the upper crust that he toes the line with during the Christmas holiday in Manhattan. At the start, Tom is leaving a debutante ball and crosses paths with a group of these sparkling young people. Trying to go home the group mistakenly thinks they intercepted Tom from getting a taxi. In the moment of confusion Tom doesn’t reveal that he doesn’t really have the spare funds for a taxi in the first place, trying and failing to pull away from the group. But these attempts are half hearted as he accepts their invitation for him to just come along with them to an after party at a close friend’s apartment.

Metropolitan

From this moment on, Tom is adopted into the group as if he was a stray dog they found and his inclusion is what fully immerses us into this world. Tom does not easily blend in at first, and makes a point of frequently reminding the group that he doesn’t really approve of their lifestyle of bougie culture and endless parties. While also trying to hype up his intelligence to impress these new people around him – the group of young adults who casually refer to themselves as the “Sally Fowler Rat Pack”.

During the after party it is revealed that he actually has more connections with the group than he initially thought. Mostly through the connection of a casual ex girlfriend named Serena, who the group knows as they gossip about a current relationship she has with a very unsavory guy. At the party Tom meets all these new people, but the ones who are most prominent in his character development as we go along are Nick, Audrey and Charlie.

“One thing linking Tom to the group is a shared acquaintance with his ex girlfriend.”

Nick (Chris Eigeman) likes to think of himself as the unofficial ringleader of the group and is a charming character who seems straight out of a P.G Wodehouse novel, or someone that could’ve been summoned from the depths of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s mind. Nick is not ashamed of his privileged life and can come across as insensitive at times, but there is something endearing about him. He feels like a throwback to an archetype that is fading; that could only now be properly found in novels and screwball comedies that deal with class and society.

Next there is Audrey (Carolyn Farina). Audrey is a bit isolated from the rest of the girls in her society set. They are all outgoing, gossipy, flirtatious and command attention, while Audrey is a bit more reserved and a little awkward. She is included in the group but you can always tell that the other girls look at her as a delicate being that needs to be groomed, and become aware what they perceive to be the harsher truths of their glittery high class world. Audrey is quite content though in her mindset, she may come of as an innocent to others but unlike the others she has a grace and thoughtfulness that will be helpful to her moving forward.

Then of course we have Charlie (Taylor Nichols). Charlie is the bespectacled intellectual of the group, and has a slightly nervous and paranoid personality. Out of the group, Charlie is also the one that does not welcome Tom in with open arms, in fact he makes a point of criticizing Tom’s involvement through the majority of the film.

As I said before, one thing linking Tom to the group is a shared acquaintance with his ex girlfriend. Someone who isn’t part of this particular group but one who some of the girls have gone to school with and who also dates an infamous playboy. We find out that Tom has lingering feelings for her and that during the school year he wrote her romantic letters to declare his affection for her.

Metropolitan

Meanwhile, we as the audience pick up on the fact that Audrey has a budding crush on Tom, which he is blindly unaware of even though he is always paired with her when the group goes out. This complicated scenario grows even more so when Tom abandons Audrey at a party to take his ex home after running into her and falling into conversation. Audrey is heartbroken but keeps her chin up while others in the group are far less forgiving. One of those being Charlie who has an affection for and feels protective over Audrey and the scenario doesn’t help to warm him to Tom’s growing inclusion in the group.

“The absence of Nick afterwards is quite noticeable and this has a lot to do with the superb acting of Chris Eigeman.”

Meanwhile on the other end of the story beyond the romantic plot, we have Nick and Tom, whose friendship has only grown stronger as the film goes on. Nick remains the sophisticated upper class showman of this society world and Tom is his willing pupil who stays true to himself (for the most part), but is willing to be groomed to fit in better by Nick himself. But Nick has a few problems of his own, the big one being an open hostility for Rick Von Sloneker who also happens to be the guy casually taking out Tom’s ex Serena. Most of the fellow members of the group either don’t care about Rick or agree that he’s not a great guy but don’t pay him any attention. Nick though can’t help but zero in on the aggression he has for Rick.

One night even coming up with a fictionalized tale of a girl Rick drove to suicide after a brief affair. Called out on his lie, Nick claims innocence saying that the story itself may be false but it is in fact inspired by various true stories involving Rick’s unsavory treatment of girls. Things come to a head when Rick is invited to one of the parties. Nick can’t help but poke the dragon and refuses to let sleeping dogs lie; not long into the party he gets into an argument with Rick. Nothing changes and the situation only leaves Nick passed out on a couch with a bloodied nose.

The event happens the same evening Nick is leaving the city to go visit his father and stepmother who he is paranoid and suspicious about. In one of my favorite scenes, Tom accompanies Nick to the station with a few other insignificant partygoers. Nick, ever the representation of class, doesn’t let his loss sour his mood and continues in light banter with Tom before departing. Entrusting Tom with his top hat he meanders down the empty platform. He continues to turn and wave, getting smaller and smaller in the frame. Nick practically fades from the film at this point and in the nature of the literary characters he brings to mind goes as if we have just finished a novel, leaving his character forever frozen in time. The absence of Nick afterwards is quite noticeable and this has a lot to do with the superb acting of Chris Eigeman in the role.

I must admit that my only minor critique of the film is how sudden the ending comes upon you. Watching, you are settled in this close knit world and suddenly you’ve reached the final page and have to close the book. With Nick gone from the picture and the holiday season and break coming to a close the group begins to disintegrate. As the group goes their separate way Tom and Charlie become an unlikely duo as they bond. Of course the big thing they bond over is Audrey. By the end of the film Tom has had a so called “come to Jesus” moment where romantic entanglements are concerned and realizes that it was Audrey all along who had his heart.

“We can gleam something from these characters or at least find them endlessly fascinating.”

I don’t know why, but on a subsequent re-watch this plot progression was a bit irritating for me. Naturally on first watch I thought I enjoyed it, after seeing Audrey pine for Tom all the way through it felt nice to see him return this affection in the end. But when I watched again that feeling changed and I can’t help but feel like Tom’s newfound “affection” for Audrey is born more from his ego than genuine love and attraction, which is purely my opinion. If you have yet to see the film I will leave the climatic realizations at the end of the film that lead to this point for your own discovery.

For me, I actually found the sudden friendship forged between Tom and Charlie to be more enriching to watch than the romantic union at the end between Tom and Audrey. Tom and Charlie are different people yet ultimately very similar, and any previous polarization between to two dissolves into a very solid friendship. In a way Tom kind of steps into the shoes left empty by Nick and Charlie becomes his partner in crime. They have a nice banter and share some of the most humorous moments when they go on their quest of uniting Tom with Audrey. I could have easily watched a whole film of the exploits of a Tom and Charlie friendship.

Metropolitan

In conclusion, I greatly enjoyed Metropolitan. It is the type of film we don’t see as often nowadays mostly because stories revolving around the rather petty exploits of the upper crust are not seen as that enriching. Also very few of us can relate to these particular struggles or bond with these characters, but at the end of the day I think we should see more of these films (for example the release of Crazy Rich Asians is a recent example of films in this light).

Whit Stillman doesn’t excuse them or placate these people. He presents them almost as a humorous exhibit for us to observe and possibly take some light observations from. Sure, many of us can’t relate to the struggles of going with the right group to a debutante ball or the romantic indiscretions of prep school students… But we can gleam something from these characters or at least find them endlessly fascinating to spend a period time with when watching such a film. Metropolitan is a great film offering, having to do with the tongue in cheek humor that can be found in the stuffy world of class and society. You can also see hints of literary influence in this film which I loved and briefly touched on before. Maybe I am reading too much into the literary feel of this film but I couldn’t help but see the faintest essence of The Great Gatsby and also A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the way the plot plays out and certain characterizations. All in all watching very much feels like ready a light and effervescent novel and I would definitely recommend.

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