08th May2018

‘Metropolitan’ Blu-ray Review (Criterion)

by Rupert Harvey

Stars: Edward Clements, Carolyn Farina, Chris Eigeman, Taylor Nichols, Allison Parisi | Written and Directed by Whit Stillman

metropolitan-blu-cover

One might think of Whit Stillman’s minor hit debut as the uptown, Eastside answer to Richard Linklater’s Slacker, which was also released in 1990. Between them they set the template for many a late-century indie: a loose and unfocused narrative peopled by an array of flawed characters discussing life, love, inclusion and exclusion, human existence and God.

The plot ostensibly concerns our sort-of-hero, Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), as he attends a series of preppy parties in various posh apartments in Manhattan. But Tom can’t share a taxi home with the others. He is – gasp! – a “Westsider”, which to a UK audience means he’s not quite as ridiculously wealthy as his friends. This isn’t a late-teen friendship group we normally see on screen. Remember that brilliant tennis club scene in Trading Places? They’re kind of like that, only less hideous. When they’re not discussing the social hierarchy or communism, they’re debating the value of Tolstoy or Jane Austen.

So, Tom is an outsider. He’s not quite ostracised, but his friends are wary. Tom is attracted to Audrey (Carolyn Farina), although he’s also got emotional residue with his ex. Meanwhile, Charlie (Taylor Nichols) is hopelessly in love with Audrey, and Nick (Chris Eigeman) is on a reckless downward spiral, putting in doubt his place in the group. Also, there’s this sleazebag named Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe) who’s threatening to tear the pack apart entirely.

On paper, it’s a regular type story about love, loss, heartbreak, jealousy – the usual college-age conundrums. Except here, such tribulations are hopelessly complicated by social status and the barriers of intellectualism. The film is quite original in this regard. It lightly mocks the youth of the chattering class, who are smart enough to put the world to rights over champagne functions, but too inexperienced to understand their own emotions. It’s relatable enough to make you care about its privileged protagonists.

There are real pressures on these young people, thrust into an anachronistic world where existence depends upon maintaining status. In one scene, Nick impels Tom to stop sympathising with the “less fortunate” – something he regards as condescending – and accept his duty as an escort in the world of “urban haute bourgeoisie”.

This grey area of authenticity leaves Tom in a state of identity anxiety. There’s also something here about gender roles. Audrey has constant doubts about her role as a woman, caused by Tom’s spurning of her. And in the end, as Tom and Charlie stumble into their meekly heroic rescue mission, they are emasculated by their impracticality, unable to function without the relatively alpha Nick – the one man, it should be said, with absolutely no doubts about his place in the social pecking order.

Tom is full of contradictions. He’s “radical” in a privileged world; he’s over his ex, yet pining for her; and he’s supposedly the Nice Guy, even though he’s a frustrating enigma who mistreats Audrey. He justifies his behaviour with convoluted sociological excuses; never anything as parochial as emotions. Tom doesn’t read novels, he reads literary criticism – the best of both worlds, he says. Tom maintains the appeal of the outsider in the group. But if he walks with them and talks with them… is he not one of them?

As the sympathetic yet sanctimonious Tom, Clements balances the charm and unlikability well, but the pick of the cast is Eigeman as Nick: though his smugness is at once unbearable, by the time of his nadir we feel bad for him. Audrey is relatively underwritten, but Farina brings a sweetness and a vulnerability which rings true. And there’s a good performance from Taylor Nichols as Charlie, so drenched in guilt about his privilege that he’s convinced Manhattan high society is doomed. Charlie gets some of the best lines. “When you’re an egoist,” he warns Tom, “none of the harm you do is intentional.”

Stillman’s style is anti-stylistic, all medium shots and stagey blocking, and sometimes it’s starkly static: a simple setup, and a character walks into picture and then walks out. Occasionally, characters aren’t even in focus within the frame. Stillman’s filmmaking is unrefined, but we can see his intention. His objective eye never romanticises his subjects and always keeps them at distance. The editing has us hopping about these parties with nary a thought for continuity. Stillman is happy to jump cut to a different conversation with the same characters elsewhere in the room. It’s precisely what you wouldn’t be taught at film school, and it works.

Sharp, satirical and sometimes genuinely funny (we’re talking smirks rather than belly laughs), Stillman’s first film holds up exceptionally well, in no small part thanks to the fascinatingly outdated, unreachable corner of society on which it’s focused. It’s distinguished by its setting, but also some smart writing and the handful of quality performances at its core. The film craft may be raw, but the talent shines through.

Extras are limited to outtakes, a couple of alternate casting scenes, and the trailer.

Metropolitan is out now on Criterion Blu-ray.

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