Metropolitan is like a crêpe, light, airy and just a little sweet. It’s well-intentioned and warm without much cloy, and while it could be loosely classified as a “romantic comedy”, it more closely resembles The Importance of Being Earnest than Fool’s Gold. This is simply a sweet independent film, the first for director Stillman. Metropolitan centers on a group of blithely unaware but basically kind Manhattan socialite youths during the debutante season. Their ranks are accidentally infiltrated by Tom, a working class kid who opposes debutante dances “on principle” but continues to attend them to escort the lovely and sweet Audrey. Although he is repeatedly invited into their ranks, Tom continues to oppose his group of new friends, even as he seeks to emulate them. Tom tries to hide his perceived deficiencies (the fact that his tuxedo is rented, for instance) behind a lot of idealistic talk, but he ultimately turns out to be a socialist in word only.
“I’m just as much opposed to them [debutante parties] as I’ve ever been,” Tom points out, even as he attends his first ‘deb party’. When asked why he decided to attend, pack leader Nick cuts in dryly, “He got an invitation.”
The film centers on these confused identities, this nagging feeling of being unaware of one’s own ideology. Old-money conservative Charlie begins the film with one of his heartfelt rants, this time on the topic of religion, trying to convince one of the girls that God must exist and that we must reconnect with our innate belief through an act of faith. “And you’ve experienced that?” She asks, admiringly. “Well, no.” Charlie admits as her face falls. “I hope to someday.” Every character espouses such deeply held beliefs that with even the gentlest of prodding seem to crumble up and blow away. It’s not that they’re liars; each character is earnestly confused in their own endearing ways.
The most telling moment of this is the gentle argument Tom and Audrey have about the morality of Mansfield Park. Audrey lives her life by literary classics, while Tom reads only criticism. Just like the parties, he is opposed to Mansfield Park on principle, but hasn’t actually read the book, only Lionel Trilling’s analysis of it. In the same way, Tom lives as a “socialist” only because he doesn’t have the means to be anything else. “You oppose these parties on principle,” Nick once more prods at Tom. “And what principle is that?” Tom is unable to answer.
Debutantes may be a relic of the past, and Metropolitan may deal with politics long since dead, but the issues of personal philosophy and maturation are universal. As Luc Sante wrote in his essay on the film for the Criterion Collection, “It is, after all, a movie about kids.” We continue to relate to Metropolitan because it’s a film about confused adolescence, not really social class or privilege. There are some minor scuffles, a few gently bruised hearts, and a lot of talk about the inevitably of failure for WASPs (or, as the film refers to the, UHBs: Urban Haute Bourgeoisie), but it’s ultimately about the fragility of youth. None of the kids are ready to face adult decisions, money or no money, and all of their talk is as much a shield as their elaborate and outdated costumes.
Released to critical acclaim and Oscar nods just after the catalyst year of 1989 (with sex, lies and videotape and The Unbelievable Truth), Metropolitan helped mark a turning point for the industry and remains a pillar of independent cinema’s history. By the end of the film, we’re left more reaffirmed than shaken, like the lost but searching protagonists.
By Britta R. Moline 5/18/11