Director : Whit Stillman
Screenplay : Whit Stillman
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 1990
Stars : Carolyn Farina (Audrey Rouget), Edward Clements (Tom Townsend), Christopher Eigeman (Nick Smith), Taylor Nichols (Charlie Black), Allison Parisi (Jane Clark), Dylan Hundley (Sally Fowler), Isabel Gillies (Cynthia McLean), Bryan Leder (Fred Neff), Will Kempe (Rick Von Sloneker), Elizabeth Thompson (Serena Slocum), Stephen Uys (Victor Lemley)
Whit Stillman was a distinctive voice in the independent film scene of the early 1990s, with his throwback allusions to the drawing room comedies of Jane Austen and Oscar Wilde taking on a fascinating dimension in light of his modern settings and sensibilities. Like many other emerging indie filmmakers at the time, he tended to focus on young people and their dialogue, but his characters were not the engaging slackers of Kevin Smith or Richard Linklater, but rather successful kids on the brink of adulthood and all its neuroses. He also didn’t have the postmodern vibe of someone like Hal Hartley, but rather a curious eye that looks at his characters and their situations with a sense both ironic and warm.
This sensibility is best demonstrated in his debut film, Metropolitan, which was made on a shoestring budget of $200,000 and shot in Super 16mm. Its characters are all Manhattan college freshmen from “the urban haute bourgeois,” as one of the film’s overtly literate characters puts it. The story takes place over a period of a few weeks known as “debutante season,” where the teens dress up night after night in tuxedos and evening gowns and attended formal dances and gatherings, even though we never see any of these events (the budget dictated their taking place off-screen). Instead, Whitman focuses on the before- and after-parties, which allows him a more focused window into their world.
The members of the group calls themselves the “Sally Fowler Rat Pack” after the member Sally (Dylan Hundley) whose parents’ apartment is used for many of the gatherings. While the group is initially composed of seven people, the film begins with the addition of an eighth, Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), who differs from the others in that he is not particularly wealthy (he has to wear a London Fog raincoat over his rented tux because he can’t afford an overcoat) and he doesn’t care for the debutant society scene; in fact, he is politically opposed to it. However, once he is brought into the group, he finds an atmosphere of engaging conversation and ideas that keeps bringing him back. He also catches the eye of Audrey (a very Molly Ringwald-esque Carolyn Farina), the shy girl he is escorting. But, Tom is too enamored with his former girlfriend, the notorious Serena Slocum (Elizabeth Thompson), to notice.
From a purely plot perspective, not a lot happens in Metropolitan. The story at its core is about these characters’ coming of age; Stillman uses the debutant season as a stand-in for the transition from childhood to adulthood, as they are presented into the world they will eventually inherent and be responsible for. In many ways, they already have one foot in both worlds, and the ultimate irony is that both are crumbling. They cannot stay children forever, yet the high society into which they are being ushered is constantly referred to as an anachronism. In the film’s greatest feat, Stillman (who was a prep-school kid and Harvard graduate) views the fading away of high society in terms that are both ironic and mourning.
There is a great deal of dialogue in the film, much of it completely irrelevant to the plot itself, but fascinating in terms of what it says about its characters. The de facto leader of the group and the most seemingly confident is Nick Smith (Christopher Eigeman), yet he feels deeply threatened by an outsider named Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe), who to Nick represents everything that is wrong with being male. Yet, for that very reason, Cynthia (Isabel Gillies), the most overtly sexual of the group, finds Rick fascinating and insists on defending his character. Then there’s Charlie (Taylor Nichols), who wears large round glasses and is prone to such all-encompassing declarations as, “I don’t think there’s such a thing as the public imagination.”
The dialogue in Metropolitan is unblinkingly literate and high-brow; it is, in fact, so cleverly and obviously scripted that we never once believe that the characters, despite being upper-West Side children of privilege with fine educations, would talk like this. Yet, it never detracts from their realism as three-dimensional human beings because the rhythms and cadence of their words and discussions take on a life of their own that transcends simple verisimilitude. Listening to Tom attempt to defend his decision to be a Fourierist socialist or Nick complaining that his stepmother “of untrammeled malevolence” tells us a great deal about their characters, but is also intriguing in and of itself. Stillman understands the pleasure of words and the power they have, and while Metropolitan is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, it is consistently amusing in a way that few films manage to sustain.
|Metropolitan Director-Approved Criterion Collection DVD|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||The Criterion Collection|
|Release Date||February 14, 2006|
|While Metropolitan was originally shot on Super 16mm, the new high-definition transfer, which was supervised by director Whit Stillman and cinematographer John Thomas, was taken from a 35mm blow-up interpositive and the digitally restored with the MTI Digital Restoration System. While this more clearly represents the theatrical viewing experience of the film, it results in an imagine that is noticeably grainier than would be expected (the unavoidable resulting of blowing 16mm up to 35mm). The grain is not distracting, though, and the image looks surprisingly good for a film of such a limited budget. The color palette tends to lean toward black and white, as most of the film takes place at night, but there are strong splashes of vibrant color throughout, such as the reds and golds of the various apartments and the pink of Sally’s dress.|
|The original monaural soundtrack, transferred at 24-bit from a 35mm magnetic audio track, sounds great. The jazzy score has a nice warm feel and the excellent dialogue is always clear and understandable.|
|The screen-specific audio commentary features writer/director Whit Stillman (who has been missing from cinema since his last film, 1998’s The Last Days of Disco), editor Christopher Tellefsen, and actors Christopher Eigeman and Taylor Nichols. The four participants were all recorded together, and their discussion has a loose, easy vibe that in no way takes away from the track’s informative value. In fact, as a primer of low-budget filmmaking that results in a film that looks like five times more was spent than its actual cost, this track is essential. Other supplements on the disc include roughly 10 minutes of scratchy outtakes, some of which are alternate takes on dialogue on the film and the rest of which is the actors cracking themselves up. An interesting inclusion is two scenes that feature alternate cast members, including an early rushed scene in which Will Kempe plays Nick (both the outtakes and the alternate casting footage include optional commentary by Stillman). Lastly, the disc includes the film’s original theatrical trailer.|
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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