Metropolitan (1990)

16 01 2014

It’s always a struggle to begin these reviews, but I’m finding this to be especially the case with Whit Stillman’s debut, Metropolitan. There’s not a shortage of things to talk about, in fact, that’s what I’m wrestling with right now. Where do I begin with a film like this? I could talk about how it’s charming, and despite some stoic performances, is actually really amusing. But there’s more to what Stillman is doing beyond effective filmmaking. In a sense, I find this film “enjoyable” and “good” at least in the way I typically approach the medium but it’s sticking around in my heart in a way that I need to unpack in a way that’s different than usual. It’s a film that resonates with me deeply, and I think it’s related to what I’m going through in my life but I still can’t endorse all of it. Then again, sometimes great art isn’t that easy.

1

Tom finds himself at a debutante ball, something he is usually opposed to. Afterwards, he inadvertently winds up at a sophisticated after party. The party is populated by a number of self-identified U.H.B., or urban haute bourgeoisie. Tom keeps up a certain facade around the group, but he’s definitely just below them on the financial scale. He continues going to debutante balls with the group and continues meeting up with them at the after parties. In the process, he learns of the group’s distant connection with his ex, Serena, who he’s never really gotten over. However, someone else in the social circle, Audrey, has eyes for him.

2

Tom, the outsider of the group, is the film’s central protagonist. An alienated, anxious, heartbroken asshole so typical in serious art films. At the time of this writing, there’s a movie in theaters called Her and it has this type of protagonist. The “sensitive” soul whose been wronged, and we’re meant to sit with him as he figures it out. We feel for his every moment. I want to make it known that Metropolitan is not this kind of movie. Tom fits this mold, but he is not absolved of critique. All of the characters are unpleasant on some level, perhaps inherited by their privilege and obliviousness, and Tom is no exception. Sure, he makes less money and lives with his mom on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (which is sort of a thing to the rest of the group) but he still isn’t perfect. He speaks wisely about literature with Audrey, but thirty minutes or so in it’s revealed that he never really reads literature, he merely reads literary criticism.

3

Maybe the most crucial element to Stillman’s debut is the fact that he balances this critical view of his character with some admiration for them. Maybe it isn’t obvious to everyone, but there has to be something resemblance reverence or else he wouldn’t devote so much time to them. It’s a hard balance to explain, let alone achieve but basically the despicable nature of the characters doesn’t exactly humiliate them. We laugh at their woefully upper-class rhetoric and scoff at the victimization implied by a character like Charlie, but there’s something there. I hesitate to call it humanism, because the term makes my eyes roll but there’s something in them. It’s indescribable, they’re dorks and easy to hate but you’re compelled to follow them and it’s not quite a perverse interest in seeing the downfall that they vocally lament.

4

There’s an unavoidable level of artifice here, but it actually works in a perfect way. In one episode, Tom is amused that the group plays bridge. ” I couldn’t believe you’re actually going to play bridge, such a cliché of bourgeois life” he cries, with Nick retorting, “That’s exactly why I play. I don’t enjoy it one bit.” The performance of bourgeoisie doesn’t seem productive or logical, especially since we get so many hints that these are kind of entitled brats, but Nick’s performing of the identity (even though that is his identity, no matter how he asks) is a template for Tom. Tom’s performance of bourgeoisie has to be more convincing because he lives in a crammed apartment with his mother and has to rent his tuxedo. Maybe the most important thing to remember here is that these kids are still that, kids. I’m not going to claim they;re innocent or some bullshit like that, but they inherited this lifestyle and they seem either too eager or apprehensive about fulfilling the expectations. In talking about what she finds so attractive about Tom, Audrey mentions that he doesn’t always agree when it’s convenient. The formality of charming, easy-going conversation is somewhat lost on Tom, though he eventually adapts. In this sense, the film acts as something of an antithesis to Pasolini’s Teorema. In that film, an outsider comes in and shakes everything up, changes the perception of the elites. Here, an outsider invades the territory of the bourgeoisie and they eventually suck him up, if only because Tom, like the rest of the group, is actually brimming with anxiety.

5

The charm of the film rests in large part of Audrey’s shoulders. In this, I have my biggest problem with the film and weirdly, it’s a problem I might have with myself. She’s delightful and Tom’s repeated avoidance of her only makes her easier to like. I found myself repeatedly thinking “awww” and saying it out loud whenever her romantic intentions were halted by Tom’s own inability to get over his last relationship. My problem here comes from that fact that, like everything else, Audrey is obviously a construction from Stillman’s pen. She’s easy to fall in love with and the film’s conclusion is life-affirming, if not wish-fufillment. But isn’t it selfish? If nothing else it seems sort of cheap, maybe just a personal moment of realization that love stories are often crafted from the same, limited perspective, which is something I touched upon in my review of Our Sunhi. I don’t see Stillman critiquing this framing of relationships like Hong, but the artifice of it points to the fact that it might be something of a fantasy. This doesn’t cheapen the end of Metropolitan, it’s the kind of thing I needed in my life now, which I don’t expect everyone who reads this to fully understand. I mean, it’s real enough to me. Oh, it’s also really funny, that helps a lot.

6

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