Whit Stillman’s Valentine to New York at Christmas Time: Metropolitan


About the $14,000 cost of a table at the biennial International Debutante Ball, which took place at the Waldorf-Astoria on Monday night, director Margaret Hedberg told the New York Times, “watches cost more”–watches here meaning Cartier, not Casio. Plus, Hedberg said, “there are a lot of waiters working tonight, so it’s doing something for the economy.”

It goes without saying that you can’t make this kind of stuff up–not, that is, unless you are Whit Stillman. Metropolitan (1990), Stillman’s debut film, is based on his past experience navigating Manhattan’s debutante circuit. Anything but a radical himself, Stillman studiously avoids making monsters or cretins out of his good-natured Upper East Side college kids, who have come home for the holidays to don tuxedos and taffeta. Nevertheless, Metropolitan‘s protagonist is Tom Townsend, a middle-class kid from the West Side and a self-described agrarian socialist/Fourierist, who insists “it wouldn’t be so bad if these people lost some of their class prerogatives.” One of the pleasures of the movie is watching an unlikely friendship develop between Tom and über-WASP Nick Smith (the criminally undercast Chris Eigeman, going gangbusters in his first role). Nick laments the demise of bourgeois decadence, and does everything he can to keep blueblood traditions alive, even promoting the use of detachable shirt collars. “You’re obviously talking about more than detachable collars,” Tom says.

Set “not so long ago” in a vague past (historical signifiers include checkered cabs and Channel 11 yuletide logs) Metropolitan is much more than an elegy for a subculture of privilege–it’s a valentine to New York City at Christmas time, rivaling anything Woody Allen ever put on screen. If you don’t have your own party to attend tonight, consider renting or purchasing Criterion’s excellent Metropolitan DVD. You’ll be doing something for the economy.–Benjamin Strong