Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Filmmaker Whit Stillman seemingly came from nowhere in 1990 with this independent look at what one of his characters dubs the "UHB": The Urban Haute Bourgeoisie. This is debutante society, where young ladies from Manhattan families that matter are honored at coming-out parties and dances. Stillman's highly literate script focuses on the adventure of a middle-class boy invited to join one particular "after-party" clique. The group may appear sophisticated in its tuxedoes and gowns, but socially it's just as unstable as any gathering of young adults.
An impressive first feature, Metropolitan was nominated for a Best Screenplay award and compares favorably to the work of Woody Allen. Even more amazing, none of the ensemble cast members had ever acted in a movie before.
Wearing a rented tuxedo, Freshman Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) is invited to join the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, a small group of sons and daughters of the well-to-do who meet after the Christmas break dances to talk and drink until dawn. Tom claims that he's independent and anti-elitist but he soon becomes a vital participant in the nightly gatherings, where Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols) harangues the group with his opinions and Cynthia McLean encourages gossip and probing party games. Tom starts up a friendship with Nick Smith (Christopher Eigeman), who hides a streak of chivalry behind an egotistical exterior. And although Tom takes an instant liking to the open and sensitive Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina), he shows his insensitivity by taking her for granted while he sees an old girlfriend, Serena Slocum (Elizabeth Thompson).
Metropolitan gives us an inside look at the goings-on in an exclusive corner of New York society. The year is unspecified, as all we see are checker cabs and formal wear that could date anytime from the 1960s to the 1980s. The debutante scene is shrinking every year and acceptable escorts are in short supply, so Nick initially seems to be hustling Tom Townsend into buying instead of renting a tuxedo to serve the needs of the group. But even when the dances are over, Tom is invited to stay for more all-night parties, as a needed eighth partner for bridge.
Whit Stillman's dialogue is like Woody Allen's without the constant need for one-liner zingers. His young women have poise and grace yet adhere to social rules learned in the prep-school jungle. Stillman explains that Tom, Charlie and Nick try to be nonchalant and self-possessed but end up contradicting themselves with expressions of doubt or insecurity. Tom invariably blunders into deep-dish discussions, as when he energetically opposes Audrey on the subject of Jane Austen only to reveal that he hasn't bothered to read the author. The allusions to Austen and Fitzgerald are never superficial, and Metropolitan has an honest literary basis as well as a keen awareness of class differences.
Our identification with these characters stems from their self-awareness. Although the kids belong to elite circles, they themselves have accomplished little and may never be as successful as their parents. Charlie is obsessed with the idea that the debutante society scene is doomed, while Tom broods over why his father should move away without notice, effectively dispossessing him (Nick has the grim answer: Tom's stepmother). The boys strike manly poses but only slowly come to the realization that their formal partners have a parallel social life with serious dates who are more desirable marriage prospects. "Where are you going without us?" asks Charlie of the more mature, tight-lipped Jane (Allison Rutledge-Parisi): "I'm going on a date. You don't know him, and that's how I like it." Nick seems intent on hanging onto the deb-society trappings as long as they hold out, wearing a top hat and white gloves as if auditioning for the cover of New Yorker magazine. Behind his pompous front, he's actually quite a gentleman.
At the center of Metropolitan is the sensitive Audrey, who worries that her hips are too big. Sweet and direct in her emotions, she falls into a schoolgirl crush on Tom. It breaks her heart to find out on Christmas Eve that Tom has been spending his time with Serena, a beauty who goes through boyfriends like Kleenex. Adding tension to the proceedings is the insufferable snob Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe), an authentic baron with a nasty reputation who invites Cynthia and Audrey out to his house on Long Island. When young Tom realizes that Audrey has been the girl for him all along, he joins Charlie in a half-baked rescue mission.
The film's unusual setting is so convincing that many viewers incorrectly assume that Whit Stillman's actors are members of debutante society playing themselves. Taylor Nichols is from Michigan and Stillman found the lovely, transparently emotional Carolyn Farina behind a Manhattan perfume counter. Metropolitan isn't a satire or an exposé; Stillman's gentle probing reveals characters we really care about.
Criterion's DVD of Metropolitan is a beautiful disc with an excellent transfer. The Super-16 film manages to imbue Stillman's rich-looking interiors with a golden glow of affluence -- this is a low-budget film with a very sophisticated look. The clear mono audio highlights the playful score selections by Mark Suozzo and Tom Judson.
The audio commentary features director Stillman, editor Christopher Tellefsen and actors Christopher Eigeman and Taylor Nichols discussing every aspect of their dazzling little movie. Everything seen on NY streets was filmed on the sly, with quick glimpses of the outside of big hotels where the (unseen) debutante balls are held. Interior settings were borrowed apartments and a lounge at a friendly foundation. Stillman explains that furniture was loosely wrapped in gold fabric to maintain a consistent look - the art direction on this show is nothing short of miraculous.
Disc producer Kate Elmore has Stillman narrate a lengthy set of of production outs that display both his inexperience and his inspired handling of his cast. Even in flubbed shots we can see the players rising to the challenge of the densely worded script. Author Luc Sante provides a liner note essay. The only sad thing about Metropolitan is discovering that most of its young cast hasn't been seen in films again; Eigeman (who came back in Stillman's Barcelona) and Nichols tell us that the ensemble's success resulted in typecasting -- agents would only put the actors up for similar parts.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: Commentary with the director, editor and two actors, outtakes, trailer, liner note essay by Luc Sante
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 20, 2006
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson