The Indiscreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Debutante balls are a polite bit of antiquarianism, as tastefully obsolete as a shrimp fork or a bed skirt. Director Whit Stillman (Barcelona; The Last Days of Disco) knows this, and it is with a sly smirk -- never a smile -- that he presents, right after Metropolitan's title card, a point of reference for his exploration of debutantes, derelicts, barons, and the bourgeois: "Not so long ago." The ultimate period piece, Metropolitan, made in 1990, may as well have been set in Mesopotamia for all of its graspable realism. But as it hums along, through the boudoirs of Park Avenue and the 21 Club, it becomes clear that realism is not what's being sought. For the pampered co-eds that populate Stillman's upper-crust Manhattan world (and the one low-brow interloper they adopt), the real world is as far off as the moon.

Metropolitan, released for the first time on DVD by the art-house bourgeois heroes behind the Criterion Collection, is now poised to seduce a new generation of fabulous layabouts. Packaged with an essay by Luc Sante (author of Low Life: Lures and Snares of Old New York, a fellow admirer both of high pretensions and illicit pleasures), Metropolitan now seems both prescient and dated: its brand of slick irony and limpid nostalgia, not to mention its unapologetically crawling pace, jar with viewers more accustomed to the girl-about-town exploits depicted by Cruel Intentions, Sex and the City or the Washingtonienne. But what Metropolitan lacks in bombast, it makes up for in sharpness. At its best, the film is as tight and as effervescent as a champagne bubble.

Metropolitan opens with liberal arts radical and would-be proletarian Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) absorbed almost miraculously into a group of high-society adolescents while strolling past the Plaza Hotel. (Stillman has a reverent eye for New Yorkiana, and it is never more loving than in this film.) Tom is a lovable windbag, given to pompous declamations about art, life, and literature. He practices Fourierism, an obscure brand of utopian socialism popularized by Nathaniel Hawthorne's Brook Farm, prefers literary criticism to novels, and is generally unintelligible to the aristocrats (titled and untitled) among whom he finds himself. These aristocrats, moneyed bourgeoisies in impossible puff-sleeved party dresses and their own -- only Tom rents -- tuxes, are given as well to high-minded pontificating. Metropolitan is driven almost entirely by the force of its characters' relentless conversing. Stillman's gift, as a screenwriter and as a director, is his ability to coax dialogue in two directions at once: what the characters think it means, and what it actually means. His gentle irony -- almost surgically incisive, though never, admittedly, uproarious -- is precisely in the manner of his acknowledged predecessor, another expert chronicler of middle-class money and its discontents: Jane Austen.

Miss Austen makes a brief but telling appearance in Metropolitan, as Tom and his ardent admirer Audrey Rouget discuss her novel Mansfield Park. We are clearly to see a parallel between Austen's story of a well-meaning girl ensconced -- or imprisoned, depending on your point of view -- among wealth, upper-class snobbery, and their temptations. Audrey and Tom come from two different worlds: she, the Upper East, he, the gritty Upper West Side; she, the eternal debutante, he, the working class hero, though, of course, he's rather far from working class. But somewhere between the endless debates on the meaning of life for the self-proclaimed UHB (urban haute bourgeoisie), the two manage to fall sweetly and a touch bathetically in love.

Tom and Audrey's ardor -- and its obstacles -- constitute the main plotline of Metropolitan, but if it seems to be given short shrift here, it is only because it seems so wholly removed from what actually makes the movie tick. Metropolitan -- and indeed all of Stillman's films -- forsake plot for tone, structure for atmosphere. Characters, especially the UHB, tend to blend together, though a very young Chris Eigeman is fantastic as the bristly Nick Smith, a sort of high priest of bougie nostalgia. "Our generation is probably the worst since the Protestant Reformation," he mourns, "So many things which were better in the past have been abandoned for supposed convenience." That may be so, but the great bourgeois art of chatter isn't one of them. Stillman's film thrives on its own verbosity and tastefully ignores its strange obsolescence. As with every great ethnography, what's "real" is far from the point.

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