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Exploring the Upper Class: Stillman's Work Promising

By Kelly A.E. Mason

Metropolitan, the new low-budget film produced by Harvard graduate Whit Stillman, was something of a curiosity when it opened this August in Manhattan. It told a simple, quiet story of a small group of young New York socialites who spend the Christmas season attending debutante balls and engaging in witty banter at after-parties.

For more than a month, Metropolitan was shown only at one movie theater in the country, New York's Paris theater. Not surprisingly, notoriously solipsistic Manhattanites adored it. But despite its limited scope--Manhattan and its subsidiary, the Hamptons--Metropolitan supercedes regionalism and parochialism. This finely crafted film is sweetly anachronistic in an age of high-tech and high budget movies. It is a delightfully literate and sincere exploration of the death of the self-styled American aristocracy.

Metropolitan thoughtfully treats the the (at best) self-conscious and (at worst) self-absorbed mindset of the preppy class. The characters are not the flat stereotypes who populate bad teen films, but realistic characters with a painful sense of the past and their responsibility to it. They discuss French social theorists and Jane Austen, changing social mores and downward socially mobility. They still fancy virginity as something virtuous, and date in groups.

The premise of Metropolitan might immediately strike some as odious, and the near-masturbatory depiction of the lifestyle of the leisure set might also strike some as pretentious. The film at times seems to be self-satirizing, but the wit in Metropolitan is rarely meanspirited enough to be satirical. But Stillman, who directed, produced and wrote the work, saves the film from a sure, sudden death by carefully drawing characters who communicate through precariously graceful dialogue.

Most of the action centers on Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), a West Side resident who accidentally falls in with a small preppy group that, in some confusion over a taxicab, shanghais him to a chic after-party. Tom is eventually seduced by a lifestyle he once knew and later forswore. The film traces the rise and fall of this group of comrades-in-formals in a most bittersweet way. There are, of course, the token romantic entanglements. But they are far less interesting than the social comments the film makes.

At its best, Metropolitan is a clever comedy of manners in the best Austen tradition. Characters accuse each other of being "public transportation snobs." They coin terms like "urban haute bourgeoisie" to describe themselves. They ponder the lengthy duration of preppy adolesence, and play bridge.

Indubitably, the most witty and fascinating of the lot is the black sheep of the group, the Mr. Darcy, as it were, is Nick (Christopher Eigeman). Unlike Darcy, Nick does not find true love in his social circle. Instead, he finds contempt for his straightforward, acerbic criticism of it. Eigeman handles the contradictions of his character with enviable ease, and has dramatic presence remarkable for a novice film actor.

The rest of the cast of newcomers, unfortunately, do not offer equally electric performances, but they are invariably solid. Clements, if not inspired, is able as Tom. And Carolyn Farina is convincing as his well-read, occasionally insipid love interest Audrey. Taylor Nichols gives the strongest supporting performance as Charlie, the thoughtful pessimist who forever wonders if members of the "urban haute bourgeoisie" are doomed to (relative) failure.


Written, directed and produced by Whit Stillman

Starring Edward Clements, Christopher Eigman and Carolyn Farina

Stillman approaches his film with a suitable sense of whimsy; he uses silent film placards to establish the time and place of scenes. "December 25," one reads, "Traditional Christmas celebrated." The stilted editing of the scenes is also reminiscent of a time before talkies. These techniques only heighten the charming and archaic air of the film.

Metropolitan might seem outdated to some moviegoers, but more will find it winnning. Admittedly, it is not as politically conscious as it could be. But all Marxist criticism aside, Metropolitan is a lovely, indefensibly aesthetic film that makes fair and engrossing statements about a dying American aristocracy, and those who mourn it.

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