Metropolitan (Criterion Collection) Review
Set in “a time not so long ago”, Whit Stillman’s light, witty, romantic comedy among wealthy young Manhattan socialites and intellectuals still has the same timeless freshness and verve it had when it first appeared out of nowhere fifteen years ago. With its neo-romantic outlook and quirky innocent charm it staked out a claim on territory that, in the inexplicable absence of Whit Stillman from the filmmaking world since 1998, has since been usurped, but not overshadowed, only by Wes Anderson.
When it first appeared in 1990 in the days before Wes Anderson, the obvious comparison for this type of light, witty, intellectual comedy was Woody Allen, who with films like Annie Hall and Manhattan, dealt with the same coterie of New York intellectuals and socialites. Whit Stillman’s difference was in the youthful naivety of his characters and the non-professional cast he employed to draw on their genuine youthful enthusiasm and inexperience, making the film seem like a cross between Woody Allen and Pretty in Pink. These characters haven’t yet been disillusioned by the experience of life and love, but they’ve read all about it and “hope to experience it myself someday”. If they are cynical about love, it’s because they have read negative commentary about Jane Austen by literary critics (without being so vulgar as to actually read fiction themselves) and if they concerned about what the future holds in store for them, it is only because they have read a worrying article about it in the Wall Street Journal.
The viewer’s entry into this exclusive, cliquish circle is through a serious young man called Tom Townsend (Edward Clements). Coming from the poorer side of town, his parents divorced, Tom, as a committed socialist who “favours the socialist model developed by the 19th Century socialist critic Fourier”, is opposed in principle to the anachronism of the social gatherings and debutante after-parties of the children of New York’s rich and influential elite. However, he thinks it is his moral obligation to at least attend one of these coming-out events, in order to know exactly what it is that he objects to about them. Inadvertently however, Tom ends up sharing a taxi (which he is also opposed to, but more for financial than moral reasons, though he would never admit to it) and finds himself at an after-party with a group of these people who call themselves the SFRP – the Sally Fowler Rat Pack. With there being a distinct lack of escorts this season for vulnerable and impressionable young girls, Tom, despite his professed distaste for such things, agrees to extend the rental period on his tuxedo and accompany Audrey (Carolyn Farina) to the various balls and social gatherings. This brings him back into the circle of Serena Slocum (Elizabeth Thompson), the beautiful heartbreaker of many an innocent young boy’s heart who Tom still carries a torch for.
The danger with the type of material presented here is that many of the insider jokes, references and gently mocking satire of the pretensions of a small social group that are they aimed at will only be appreciated by people of the same milieu (if they even still exist), but the situation is more universal than that and easily identifiable. Tom is the outsider who despises everything these people stand for, yet is drawn to them as the popular kids, trying to impress them and gain their approval. It’s a social situation that anyone can identify with, particularly of this age group. It helps that the Sally Fowler Rat Pack are an awfully nice bunch of people who deep down have the same insecurities as Tom about their abilities and the possibility of failure and the prospect of downward mobility in a more equitable society. Coming to reluctantly admire them and sympathise with their situations, the drama then comes from whether Tom can put aside his idealistic adoration of Serena Solcum and whether his principled socialist stance as a poor boy can be reconciled with Audrey’s rich-girl Jane Austen-inspired romantic sensibilities. Yes, when it comes down to it, the central drama of the story is an age-old one and it is no worse for that.
What raises Whit Stillman’s debut film to greatness are realistic, sympathetic characters and a good old-fashioned strong script, studded with unforced one-liners wit, levity, profundity and charm. Stillman doesn’t take to distainfully mocking and pouring scorn on these characters in the one-dimensional manner of the objectionable Metropolitan-wannabe Igby Goes Down. Stillman takes time through Audrey, Nick (Chris Eigeman) and Charlie (Taylor Nichols) to identify the value of their characters, their moral integrity and underlying decency. Through them the real threats and phoniness of other characters like Rick von Sloneker (Will Kempe) are identified, Nick particularly being prone to cut them down to size with a withering remark or a well-intentioned lie. And when I say old-fashioned, I mean the freshness of a script that really does hark back to the romanticism of Jane Austen, where chaste kisses at the end of the night are the height of the love scenes and where the male characters embark on a chivalrous mission to save the reputation and decency of a young lady. Stillman would take these characters, or ones very like them, through Barcelona in 1994 (less successfully, though Taylor Nichols is just as fabulously intense and earnest there as he is here) and The Last Days Of Disco (his best film) in 1998. It comes as no surprise then to discover that Stillman has spent his missing years working in Paris working on a script that incorporates two unfinished Jane Austen novels. Modern American independent cinema could certainly learn something from a reminder of the values of the characters and the filmmaking techniques of Whit Stillman.
Metropolitan is released on DVD in the USA by Criterion. The DVD is in NTSC format and is Region 1 encoded.
This is a wonderful transfer of the film and, considering the low-budget nature of the film and the limitations it imposed on the filmmakers, Metropolitan looks amazing. The film was shot in Super-16 and the image is consequently slightly grainy and rather soft, with not a great amount of detail visible in the interiors where the majority of the film was shot. This is entirely how the film should look and the Criterion transfer handles those issues of the transfer superbly. There is possibly a slight “blush” to the red tone of the film, but since the transfer has been supervised by the director of cinematography, John Thomas, I assume this is an accurate tone. It certainly has the warmth I remember from seeing the film on its theatrical release. Criterion have also taken the opportunity to clean up any marks or print damage and the result is an almost flawless image.
The original mono soundtrack track is presented here as Dolby Digital 1.0 and barring the limitations of the original source – some lines particularly in outdoor scenes (few though they are) can be a little indistinct – it’s about as good as you could expect. The best thing I can say about the audio track is that, apart from the excellent music score and those mumbled bits of dialogue, I barely noticed it - which means it serves its function discretely and effectively.
Optional English subtitles are provided, in a white font, for hard of hearing.
The Commentary reunites director Whit Stillman, his regular actors Christopher Eigeman, Taylor Nichols (although with only three films to his name, “regular” is not a word that constitute a lot of work for these guys in Whit Stillman films), along with editor Christopher Tellefsen. It focuses on the difficulties of an inexperienced director casting and shooting a low-budget film with a cast of unknown, inexperienced actors. The director briefly covers the whole concept of debutante parties in freshman year for outsiders unfamiliar with the custom. With a few anecdotes about the shooting from the actors, this makes a generally fine commentary.
The Outtakes are gathered together as an Outtakes Montage (9:23), which is mostly made up of alternative takes, mistakes and spare bits and pieces of film. The transfer is a little bit rough, but it is perfectly watchable and transferred anamorphically. A few other clips are shown in a Memorial (1:01) to line producer (and extra), Brian Greenbaum.
Alternate Casting shows some screentests, in full costume and on the locations, for alternative casting for the Record Producer Allen (2:27) and Nick Smith (1:52). Whit Stillman provides an optional commentary for the choices made here.
The Original Theatrical Trailer (2:06) is in 1:33.1, focussing on the rivalries in the film, capturing its tone and humour well.
Regardless of its apparently anachronistic setting that few could strongly identify with, Metropolitan’s virtues are its strong characters, realistic situations and its genuine innocence, both in the personality of its sympathetic characters and in its whole approach to filmmaking. Whit Stillman's debut feature was a breath of fresh air on the independent filmmaking scene when it first appeared in 1990 and it seems even more so now since, barring Wes Anderson’s whimsical sense of wonder, there has been nothing else in American independent movie making quite like it. It must be hoped that the release of Metropolitan, as a prestigious Criterion Collection DVD, will bring about the rediscovery of a director who has been gone from our screens for far too long. There are not a great deal of extras on this release but, other than reuniting the cast of unknowns, few of whom have made any films since, it’s hard to imagine what other supplements would be of any value to the film. The quality of the transfer is everything you would expect from Criterion, and their sympathetic attention to a potentially problematic image is particularly appreciated here.