Looking back on Whit Stillman’s directorial debut Metropolitan, it is clear that reports of the death of the urban haute bourgeoisie—upper class, rich snobs, spoiled kids, whatever you want to call them—have been greatly exaggerated. Perhaps because of all its intentional witticisms, it’s hard to see Metropolitan as anything besides a Manhattan-esque satire, but Stillman himself has confessed that he made the film as a rebuttal to Luis Bunuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie—a film that Stillman’s characters reference—as a way of showing the good of the bourgeoisie. Unfortunately, Metropolitan plays today like a less extreme and less offensive version of a Glenn Beck or Sean Hannity telecast: It’s so ridiculous that it has to be funny on purpose, yet there is too much evidence that suggests it is serious.
Luckily, Metropolitan is sharp enough and not nearly preachy or ambitious enough to actually be outright offensive with its politics. The film revolves around a handful of rich college students who attend debutante balls, gather in an apartment, and discuss socialist theory, historical condemnation of the bourgeoisie, and the challenges that their social group face. Tom (Edward Clements) is the outsider, the socialist who falls into the group by accident but stays primarily because of his crush on Serena (Elia Thompson), his friendship with Audrey (Carolyn Farina), and the charisma of Nick (Chris Eigeman). Listening to these kids discuss politics is consistently humorous, thanks largely to Stillman’s literary tendencies. None of his characters talk like real people or even like movie characters, but rather like literature foils that represent an ideology more than an actual person. There are callbacks to The Hamptons and Tom’s love of literary criticism more than actual literature that elicit intelligent, sharp laughs, and the battles of the sexes play out more evenly than the director actually portrays them.
That is to say, Stillman’s females don’t engage in the same level of intellectual sparring as their male counterparts, their personalities and beliefs are far less descript, and girls can be “ruined” by giving it up too quickly. Womanizing is a crime in this world, but considering Metropolitan is as much a romance as it is a social commentary, the inequality is hard to ignore despite the best efforts to play fair, and good or bad, it’s a very simple portrayal of sexual politics that is almost as satirical as the class beliefs being spouted every other scene.
As Tom continues to interact with the “UHB” (that’s that urban haute bourgeoisie again) his socialist leanings dissolve, and the suggestion of a happy ending leads us to believe that this is a good thing. At the same time, every scene with Nick, perhaps the most UHB of them all, paints his group as snobby and pretentious, so it’s difficult to assess exactly where the film’s politics stand. It’s certainly right of center, and the sexual politics are as anachronistic as the idea of a disintegrating upper-class (and of the idea that increased wealth distribution would be a bad thing), but watching it in 2013, it is more incoherent than it is complicated—something that does not apply so obviously to his later, more aesthetically sound The Last Days of Disco. Indeed, Stillman, at least at this early point in his career, is far more of a writer than a director, and aside from the stuffy, immaculate interiors, there is little to be said about Stillman’s compositions or style. Metropolitan is by and large a competent display of its characters, but little meaning comes from images rather than words—a fact that makes the film’s ideology even more difficult to discern. But whether this is serious or satire, it’s certainly funny. As a breezy, lightweight comedy of manners, it works, but whether it works as either a subtext-driven condemnation or supporter of whatever comes out of a character’s mouth, it’s hard to say.