Whit Stillman’s 1990 debut feature Metropolitan, while about the disconnected upper class youth of a bygone era of New York City, is itself an incredible display of the success filmmakers can reach without any sort of major financial backing. Made with a cast of mostly amateurs and by calling in favors for locations and Stillman selling his apartment for extra finances, it proved to be a hit with audiences that managed to get a Cannes premiere and net a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Its success is probably due to its continuation of Jane Austen’s literary tradition as it uses the historical elite’s banal conversations and hopeless romanticism to deliver incisive commentary on the present day in a subversive manner that would soon be adopted by a whole slew of other Austen reimaginings like the Bridget Jones series.
That Austen similarity is something Whit Stillman no doubt considered as he penned the screenplay. The story one that will feel eerily similar to any Austen devotee, as it follows a group of debutantes through a season of balls and get togethers as they meet and induct new member, Tom (Edward Clements), a less well off but philosophically minded young man, into their circles and spend countless hours discussing seemingly inane subjects and finding various romantic entanglements along the way. The similarities go further though, as the characters discuss Austen’s works on numerous occasions (or at least what literary critics say about them) and how they relate to their modern world, seemingly entirely oblivious to their deeper meanings and prolonging their own difficulties as a result.
Much like Austen, it’s a delightful and humorous coming of age story and can certainly inspire some sense of romanticism in even the most hard hearted souls, but it also serves to poke fun at the lesser examples of its genres as it critiques the characters it depicts. The high society of the urban haute bourgeoisie, supposedly beyond the understanding and attainability of the common person, is simply the stomping grounds for people as flawed as any others. They squabble and invent gossip about each other as if children in a middle school cafeteria but believe themselves superior to all others and somehow make themselves moderately endearing in their obliviousness to the world around them. This all reaches a head through a recurring bit wherein one character, wealthy all his life, almost wishes he could have lived in poverty, believing that the key to finding real success and forgetting all the comforts he never would’ve experienced.
Perhaps, though, the Austen similarities and all the critiques I claimed it made may be pure coincidence springing from the actual experiences with those types of groups. Stillman certainly spent time in the sorts of circles he depicts, and I’ve done the same since moving to New York City earlier this year and, perhaps because I’m a less monied outsider like Tom or perhaps because there seem to be fewer and fewer subjects that can be discussed without prompting anger, I’ve encountered many conversations that would fit in seamlessly to the film despite its being thirty years removed from the present day. When I rewatched it, I was amused to find which characters were lining up with my own stances. This becomes even more pronounced in Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco, the following two films in Stillman’s trilogy, when incidents played out exactly as they have in my own life and I began to wonder when I’d sold the rights to my life’s story.
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