Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan” (1990)

Notable Festivals: Cannes (Quinzaine des Realisateurs), Locarno (Silver Leopard), Sundance

Independent Spirit Award: Best First Feature

Inducted into the Criterion Collection: 2006

Directors like Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach are well-known for their depictions of a particular subset of Americans:  the East Coast elite.  Usually hailing from affluent section of Manhattan and old-money families, their characters are depicted as out of touch and increasingly irrelevant in a diversifying world.  While Anderson and Baumbach have experienced career-defining success from this storytelling model, they draw inspiration from the urban pioneer that paved the paths they currently tread.  That man is Whit Stillman, and despite his relatively short filmography, he has built up a respectable niche for himself as the chief chronicler of the “urban haute bourgeoisie”.

I was, for the most part, unaware of Stillman’s existence as a filmmaker until somewhat recently.  I had heard his name bandied about in film discussions, but Criterion’s recent Blu-Ray upgrades of his 1990 debut film, METROPOLITAN, and 1998’s THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO piqued my curiosity.  Having previously studied the work of Baumbach and Anderson for the purposes of this project, I was interested in studying the man who served as their inspiration.

I was particularly excited about studying Stillman, seeing as I had never seen any of his films before.  I felt I could really dive into his canon objectively without preconceived notions or nostalgic memories of films already-seen.  First up was 1990’s METROPOLITAN, a polarizing, sedated work that netted Stillman an Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature.

The story of METROPOLITAN concerns Tom (Edward Clements), a young Ivy League man who (much like Stillman was himself) is an impoverished debutante caught between the cultural divide of Manhattan’s East and West sides.  A self-described socialist and “radical”, he comes off as a curiosity to a foppish, nihilistic young man named Nick (Chris Eigeman), who invites him to join his group of friends for their nightly Debutante season after-parties.  Dubbed the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, this group of upper-crust teenagers spend the majority of the film debating their increasing irrelevance as a social group and the value of their archaic traditions.  Along the way, hearts are broken and realizations are made, but in the end, it’s clear that the elite class will continue to prattle on in their opulent mansions in the sky, just as they always have.

Before there was GOSSIP GIRL, there was METROPOLITAN– a more sober and sedated satire of Manhattan’s old-money class.  The cast, comprised of young, fresh faces, deliver effective (yet complacent) performances.  This particular subset of New York’s social demographic isn’t particularly known for bold action, so the story is inherently heavy on dialogue and light on visual panache.  To Stillman’s credit, each of the performers is believable as discontented, over-privileged, and over-educated.  With a shock of red hair, Clements simmers with anxious energy as he navigates unfamiliar social terrain.  Chris Eigeman, who would later go on to feature prominently in Noah Baumbach’s early work, is undeniably magnetic as the Rat Pack’s chief cynic.  His haunted eyes convey a vision of the future where their kind has no place among the real movers and shakers of the world— much like how the decadence of the French aristocracy led to their downfall in the Revolution.  METROPOLITAN was  Eigeman’s first feature-film project, and he rode the wave of the film’s success to a respectable career in well-known independent 90’s films.

The rest of the cast is filled out with various faces who have not had as much career success as Eigeman.  As Tom’s love interest, Audrey, the little-known actress Carolyn Farina seems to be the only other member aware of the fading heyday of their class.  Externalized by a trend-bucking bob haircut, Audrey is a progressive thinker and romantic that hasn’t yet lost her idealism.  Besides Tom and Nick, she’s the one shining light of real human connection throughout the film.  A standout sequence for her character involves her silently crying during a Christmas Eve mass.  It’s captivating to watch someone conforming wild emotion to the stoic reserve expected from her station.

Taylor Nichols, as fellow debutante and aspiring philosopher Charlie Black, serves as the main foil to Tom.  Driven by his own yearning for Audrey, he cloaks direct confrontation in the pyschobabble of philosophical theory and practice.  However, towards the end of the film, he is allowed to soften up, loosen up, and enjoy the ride.  I was initially turned off by Charlie’s stuffy pretension, but found myself more sympathetic to him during his subtle transformation.

For a drama that plays out in the opulent confines of sky-high parlor rooms, Stillman and Director of Photography John Thomas establish a low-key, realistic aesthetic that puts the characters on the forefront of our attention.  A naturalistic color palette comprised of beiges and pastels complements a natural contrast.  Stillman and Thomas favor wider compositions and strategic close-ups, almost entirely achieved through locked-off tableau shots, with the exception of the occasional dolly tracking shot.  I also noticed a particular framing quirk, where Stillman shoots the majority of his wide shots from a perspective that gives diagonal depth to the background, while the actors are flush in-profile in the foreground.  In terms of my own personal taste, I find this to be awkward, spatially-confusing framing.  However, it’s nothing that actually affects the movie– it’s just a weird pet peeve of mine.

It’s worth noting, however, that the film features one dream sequence in which Stillman and Thomas take a decidedly stylized approach to the cinematography.  The contrast is boosted higher with impressionistic lighting, and the entire image is shifted into a cobalt blue hue.  The naturalistic sound design that permeates the film also finds an opportunity to abstract itself by throwing in a droning ambient tone.

The music of the film is comprised of stuffy versions of well-known classical pieces.  The composer, Mark Suozzo, creates a score that alternates between uppity/classical, and something resembling ragtime.  It’s an accurate musical representation of the film’s themes and characters, but can’t help but be dwarfed by the inclusion of traditional classical cues.

It’s clear from the outset that Stillman knows this world well, especially from the perspective of an outsider.  Early in the film, Eigeman’s line: “There’s a westsider amongst us”, speaks volumes about the immense social divide on either side of Central Park.  Manhattan’s Upper East Side is a bubble of wealth and arcane tradition (who else even has debutante balls anymore?), and to explore this world of nightly tuxedo events from the perspective of a rental tux provides a fascinating way into this closed world.  Stillman’s vision and direction is reinforced by subtle cues, such as the contrast between the Rat Pack’s inky black overcoats and Tom’s khaki coat.  The fiscal worries and stress that come with the Christmas setting only serve to alienate and ostracize Tom further from his newfound friends, who can spend cash on a taxi ride to Long Island without a second thought while he has to worry about paying $25 back to his own mother.  As a result of their top-tier education, everyone is incredibly verbose and articulate, but their social bubble makes them inherently unprepared for the harsh realities of the outside world.  This air of looming disaster hangs heavy over the film, making for a cinematically rich subtext.  In light of billionaire Mitt Romney’s resounding defeat to a decidedly middle-class electorate in last week’s presidential election, the twenty-two year old METROPOLITAN seems more potent and relevant than ever.

While the story doesn’t exactly boil over with pulse-pounding excitement and drama, Stillman’s debut feature film is strong, assertive and timely.  The slowly-paced, sedate nature of the film isn’t for everyone, but it’s decidedly more captivating than it would otherwise suggest.  Not so much a visual stylist as he is a gifted dialogist and character-creator, Stillman paints a minutely detailed portrait of an increasingly vain and irrelevant social group that clings to its social customs and rituals as a way to fend off the growing realization that its reign of power has come to an end.

METROPOLITAN is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via the Criterion Collection.