Release Date: 1990
Length: 98 minutes
Director: Whit Stillman
Starring: Carolyn Farina, Edward Clements, Chris Eigeman
Whit Stillman is not a man who makes a lot of movies. He’s only made about a half-dozen, mostly with budgets on the lower end of the spectrum and produced independently. While I’m dismissive of Joe Carter’s recommendations on pop-culture, particularly via Twitter, but I’ll always be in his debt for prompting me to check out the films of Stillman. He quotes Stillman’s films relatively often, and the “attractive to women” was particularly successful at piquing my interest.
Metropolitan was the first of his movies, and the low budget is tastefully hidden as best he can manage, but it still shows through in places. You’re unlikely to have heard of any of the cast. The movie is entirely driven by dialogue. The camera set-ups and angles betray the guerrilla, lack-of-permit nature of the exterior scenes. The movie takes place in New York City over the course of the deb season one winter. Most of the characters are from wealthy, upper-class families and most of the film happens at various social gatherings and parties that are part of the world and season.
The movie is deliberately vague about when it’s set. Is it the 70s? 80s? Certain lines of dialogue deliberately confuse the timeline; there are comments about detachable collars and a craze for Derringer pistols which are far too early for the rest of the appearances. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter. The movie is about young adults moving from childhood (most would call it by that abominable term “adolescence”) into being true adults. The movie examines how their friendships, romantic interests, and relationships change. The final catalyst to these changes is the introduction of a lower-middle class young man who disrupts and changes the dynamics further in unpredictable ways.
The delight of the movie for me are the incisive insights into human nature and human interaction that arise out of the conversations they have. The movie has a kind of cultural conservative sensibility, but not one that strays into politics. (Unless, like Perchik, you think everything is political.) The conversations are, of course, far more pithy and succinct than real conversations, but they do contain that ring of authenticity that good dialogue does.
Stillman has made more movies, with bigger budgets, bigger stars, and achieved greater fame, but this, his first film, remains my favorite. Sure, there’s some sentiment there since it was the first I saw and we can idealize the effects of the constraints under which he was working, but for all that I do think that the effort it took to realize it made it the purest distillation of his particular genius for making movies. You won’t like it if you have to have a car chase and some explosions in your movies, but if one of your favorite pastimes is quoting movies, this could end up being one of your favorites.