Director: Whit Stillman
Screenplay: Whit Stillman
Producers: Whit Stillman
Starring: Edward Clements, Carolyn Farina, Chris Eigeman
BBFC Certification: 15
Duration: 98 mins
In 1977’s Annie Hall, Woody Allen says “that’s one thing about intellectuals, they’ve proved that you can be absolutely brilliant and have no idea what’s going on.” This quote feels like a neat introduction to Whit Stillman’s independent comedy-drama Metropolitan, in which a middle class student from New York’s West Side becomes inadvertently swept up in the Christmas season dress balls and after parties of a group of endlessly-pontificating Upper East Side socialites. I mention Allen advisedly because, with its New York setting and 20s jazz score, Metropolitan is often compared to his oeuvre but in truth the comparisons pretty much end there. Stillman’s impressive, verbose, Oscar-nominated script bears more comparison with novelistic sources, with Jane Austen’s comedies-of-manners being an oft-cited influence and one that is openly acknowledged in the film itself. Rather than a direct modern adaptation of a specific Austen novel like Clueless or Bridget Jones’s Diary, Metropolitan is an original story infused with the style of Austen’s writing applied to a modern-era setting. Stillman would prove himself just as adept at adapting Austen more faithfully with his excellent 2016 period comedy Love and Friendship.
Metropolitan’s comparatively modest storytelling partially came about through necessity. The film was independently written, produced and directed by Stillman for just $80,000, although his evocation of New York’s winter grandeur through punctuating images of the town’s Christmas lights and towering buildings is more than enough to render cinematic a film that takes place primarily in an apartment. A plot outline is hardly sufficient to entice potential viewers since the only overtly dramatic events of the film are a handful of faux-pas but it is the verbal interplay between the characters that is Stillman’s focus and, given that this is a world alien to most viewers, there is plenty of interest to be found in his informed depiction of an upper class that tends to be painted as villainous in western cinema. Crucial in this respect is Stillman’s sympathetic writing style. He displays each characters strengths and weaknesses, acknowledging their flaws for comic effect but inviting identification rather than condemnation. Tom, the interloper amongst the débutantes, is shown to be as hypocritical and pseudo-intellectual as anyone, claiming that there is no need to read a novel in order to have an opinion on it and condemning Austen’s Mansfield Park based on existing criticisms he has glanced over.
There are many subjects discussed at length in Metropolitan, most notably issues of class and the fear of “downward social mobility” as embodied by the neurotic philosopher Charlie. Stillman’s examination of class issues is more delicate and subtle than most writers would have aimed for. He avoids having Tom treated like a lower-class figure of morbid fascination which doubtless would have been the route taken by sledgehammer-wielding satirists, instead finding convincing elements of common ground between the group and their new adoptee member. Of course, personal relationships enter the narrative too, with unrequited love abounding and the presence of an allegedly caddish titled-aristocrat adding a sense of tension, particularly for the charismatic but obnoxious and unpredictable Nick who sees no logical comparison between his undiscerning blanket hatred of titled-aristocrats and other people’s negative opinions of non-titled aristocrats. It is the sort of hypocrisy which emerges time and again throughout the film but without deliberately drawing attention to itself.
In terms of acting, Metropolitan is a mixed bag. Stillman regular Chris Eigeman gives the standout performance of the film as Nick, to whom all the best lines are given, and Taylor Nichols as Charlie and Bryan Leder as the perpetually sozzled Fred are both memorable too but Metropolitan has a major weakness in its lead, Edward Clements. Tom should be our way into this world, a character with whom we can at least partially identify, and yet Clements line readings are extraordinarily flat. A certain emotional disconnectedness is required for the part but Clements seems in a rush to get his lines out and move on, never providing us with even a hint of what the character might be feeling. It’s little surprise to discover that this was his first acting role and that he only had one subsequent screen role as Young Crewman in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. Stillman’s script is strong enough to bear this weakness but it is frustrating to imagine how much better the film might have been with someone more charismatic in the lead. The rest of the cast are adequate, although Stillman noticeably favours the male characters and fails to distinguish the females to the same level of satisfaction. This is a curious anomaly, given that Stillman’s films since his debut have all had female leads.
Part of the charm of independent films are their rough edges and Metropolitan combines a sense of opulence with a tentative modesty which makes it all the more appealing. Emerging at the same time as Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies and videotape and Hal Hartley’s The Unbelievable Truth, Metropolitan helped kickstart a renaissance in intelligent, wordy independent films that proliferated in the 90s. Despite its civilised, measured tone, Metropolitan now feels like something of a trailblazer. It is also practically uncategorisable. Though clearly a comedy of sorts, it seemed thoroughly out of place when nominated for the AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Laughs poll, while the deliberate absurdity in the excessively eloquent debates that make up the bulk of the film’s dialogue make it too fascinatingly abstruse to be saddled with the flaccid tag ‘drama’. This stylistic unknowability is also part of Metropolitan’s allure and it is hard to find other films quite like it for the purpose of comparison. This is presumably why so many critics ran to Allen as an erroneous reference point when the real inspirations were probably more readily located on printed pages than on strips of celluloid.
Metropolitan is released on Blu-ray by The Criterion Collection on 7 May 2017. Special features are as follows:
– Audio Commentary by Whit Stillman, editor Christopher Tellefsen and actors Chris Eigeman and Taylor Nichols
– Rare outtakes and alternate casting, with commentary by Stillman
– Booklet featuring an essay by critic Luc Sante