Director: Whit Stillman
Fate has once again delivered me a serendipitous subject to tackle (I swear I’m not doing this on purpose). Here we are in the thick of the holiday season and this week’s film is a Christmas time gem that doesn’t get any attention this time of year – but it should. It’s also a welcome departure from the bleakness of last month’s film noirs. As I noted last week, things were getting dark and I was looking forward to lightening the mood a bit, and boy did this one hit the mark.
Instead of tough guys, dark alleys, paranoia, murders, and dangerous dames we get a cadre of East Side Manhattan debutantes who spend Christmas break from college gathering together for inane conversations, attending lavish upper-class parties, and generally acting terrible towards one another. The dynamic of the group is thrown into chaos when they invite a stranger, Tom (Edward Clement), who doesn’t share their views (or bank accounts) to join them for debutante season.
It’s funny to me that this film came out in 1990, almost like it was ushering in the spate of films throughout the decade that share the loquacious nature of Metropolitan, such as Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming (1995 – which also features Chris Eigeman) and Kevin Smith’s Clerks (1994). The films share an unconventional narrative structure that plays out like a series of vignettes instead of a linear narrative. The film expresses an attitude about its subject rather than giving us a traditional hero’s journey.
And that attitude can be summed up in one word – malaise, the binding element for all three films. They each feature a group of early twenty-somethings who think they have the world figured out but discover in the most absurd ways that they are sorely mistaken. For my buck, the group of Metropolitan U.H.B.s (“It’s an acronym for Urban Haute Bourgeoisie”) might be the funniest and most exhausting collection of the lot.
The majority of the movie consists of a series of parties featuring high-class snobbery and ideological monologues about bourgeois life punctuated by incredulous rebuttals from one or more within the group. Take the following back-and-forth:
Charlie (Taylor Nichols): Well, I don’t think “preppy” is a very useful term. I mean, it might be descriptive for someone who is still in school or college; but, it’s ridiculous to refer to a man in his 70s, like Averell Harriman, as a “preppy”. And none of the other terms people use – WASP, P.L.U., et cetera – are of much use either. And that’s why I prefer the term “U.H.B.”
Nick (Chris Eigeman): What?
Charlie: U.H.B. It’s an acronym for Urban Haute Bourgeoisie.
Cynthia (Isabel Gillies): Is our language so impoverished that we have to use acronyms or French phrases to make ourselves understood?
It becomes hilariously apparent very quickly that these characters and their “status” are constructs of impractical knowledge and no real world experience. They are a gathering of 1/8 formed opinions with well-rehearsed conjecture but no substance or first-hand knowledge behind it. And Whit Stillman’s script takes these characters to the outer regions of absurdist conversation about inane topics:
Tom: I couldn’t believe you’re actually going to play bridge, such a cliché of bourgeois life.
Nick: That’s exactly why I play. I don’t enjoy it one bit.
Nick: My point was that the common image of divorce and decadent behavior being prevalent among New York social types is not really accurate. That’s more Southampton
Much like the film itself, I feel like I could pepper this post with witty dialogue to punctuate my point. At its heart, Metropolitan is an absurdist comedy that lands the majority of its jokes but does fall victim to what I like to call Tarantino Syndrome, wherein a writer/director is so in-love with their dialogue they forget what the “show, don’t tell” principle is.
But on the other hand, the center of the film is more than just “aren’t my observations about the upper-class SO FUNNY?!” It’s actually through these ridiculous interactions that we can see Stillman’s themes shining through that humorous veneer. Watching their behavior, even without the funny lines, is a sociological study. We chuckle at their air of superiority but I think Stillman wants us to feel sorry for their general ineptitude and misplaced ideologies.
By the end of the film, what started out as a tight-knit group of financially similar young adults with “debutante-ing” as a shared hobby devolves into the most organic of group-friend scenarios – everyone gets tired of one another after a couple weeks and they all go their separate ways. And for what? For all their theorizing, much like conversations about politics and religion, they only succeed in accomplishing nothing.
The very end of the film entails a pseudo-rescue attempt wherein Tom and Charlie take a cab from NYC to the Hamptons after failing at the simple task of renting a car because neither of them have a license (or are authorized to use their mom’s credit card). As they wind through the posh neighborhood they keep passing warning signs such as “Private Beach” and “Members Only”, and then a moment later their Yellow Checkered jalopy rumbles up the drive-way in the secluded neighborhood without so much as a peep from another resident or security.
And I’m summarizing these characters in the same way I would those signs – meaningless. They’re constructs, just empty words without action to back them up. But that’s not to say they’re without charm. Many of the characters are a joy to watch and Stillman’s script is really a marvel of editing and pacing.
In true Criterion fashion, I think I’ll sign this post off in the most fitting way possible for a movie such as this – with a timely quote detailing just how charming this group can be while also name-dropping another film in the Collection:
Charlie: The term ‘bourgeois’ has almost always been – been one of contempt. Yet it is precisely the – the bourgeoisie which is responsible for – well, for nearly everything good that has happened in our civilization over the past four centuries. You know the French film, “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie”? When I first heard that title I thought, “Finally, someone’s gonna tell the truth about the bourgeoisie.” What a disappointment. It would be hard to imagine a less fair or accurate portrait.
Sally (Dylan Hundley): Well, of course. Buñuel’s a surrealist. Despising the bourgeoisie is part of their credo.
Nice: Where do they get off?
Charlie: But the truth is, the bourgeoisie does have a lot of charm.
Nice: Of course it does. The surrealists were just a lot of social climbers.
The kids are not alright.