Midway through Metropolitan, the preppy cast riffs on Luis Buñuel’s unflattering portrayal of the upper class, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. Based on the title alone, Charlie, a pessimistic know-it-all, feels that he went to see the film under false pretenses. He simply can’t “imagine a less fair or convincing portrait.” Nick, the group’s pompous ringleader, dangles his cigarette and responds dismissively: “The Surrealists were just a lot of social climbers.”
Sixteen years have passed since writer-director Whit Stillman dazzled Sundance audiences with this highbrow (yet awfully low-budget) comedy about a handful of wealthy college students partying over Christmas recess. Unlike Buñuel, Mr. Stillman offers a far more sympathetic take on the young, doomed and bourgeois: They’re not really so bad, once you get to know them.
While not a trilogy in the strictest sense, the director’s two later films, Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998), feature several members of Metropolitan’s ensemble cast. Thematically, there is some overlap as well: A handful of twentysomething conversationalists weigh in on morality, relationships and social class while still going to plenty of parties and clubs. But Metropolitan isn’t as polished as the later films; in fact, considering the superb acting and shoestring production costs, it could almost pass as a documentary.
Together, this abbreviation-prone crew—they dub themselves either the SFRP (Sally Fowler Rat Pack) or U.H.B. (Urban Haute Bourgeoisie)—pass the early-morning hours in an Upper East Side co-op apartment following the evening’s debutante ball. And it’s the ensuing dialogue that people either love or hate about the film. Having just spent their first semester in college, the group takes any opportunity to spout big ideas about Fourier’s theory of agrarian socialism, Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park and whether or not a “popular imagination” exists. At the same time, they’re still 18-to-19-year-olds and not all that stodgy: They play bridge out of obligation, but strip poker for fun.
Set “not so long ago,” Metropolitan most likely occurs somewhere in the late 1960’s or early 1970’s. There are no references to current events—assassinations, protests or the Beatles—but subtleties lead to this interpretation (which may take more than one viewing). Even in this closed-off world, times are changing. Parents are scarcely around, and traditions are being tossed aside. While walking down Park Avenue in the predawn hours, Tom (Edward Clements) and Nick (Christopher Eigeman) discuss detachable collars, out of fashion but “symbolically important.” Nick believes that certain traditions, though they may not make sense, should be upheld nevertheless, especially now that “barbarism is cloaked with all sorts of self-righteousness and moral superiority.” “You’re obviously talking about a lot more than detachable collars,” says Tom. “Yeah, I am,” Nick responds gravely.
Although Mr. Stillman has only two films to his credit since Metropolitan, he’s developed a cult following that has been patiently waiting for something new. (In 2000, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published his first novel, The Last Days of Disco: With Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards, and Mr. Stillman had a brief stint writing for Page Six the following year.) Over the past few years, it’s been reported that he was working on a film about China’s Cultural Revolution (which seemed baffling), and later that he was combining two unfinished Jane Austen novels into a screenplay (which seemed highly plausible).
Until one of these projects comes together, fans will have to rely on the excellent Criterion release, which for real nerds offers both a director’s commentary and a booklet with a critical essay by Luc Sante on the film’s importance in the indie canon. You could probably drop references to the latter at your next deb party.