I avoided METROPOLITAN for quite some time. I watched writer/director Whit Stillman’s follow-up THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO shortly after it was released on DVD and thought: his candor and approach is simply not for me.
I eventually got around to METROPOLITAN more than a handful of years later — before he completed LOVE & FRIENDSHIP, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s posthumous novel PERSUASION — and did appreciate it but didn’t fall in love with it the way others had. I could feel the Woody Allen influence and had a hard time reckoning with that. (I admit, ANNIE HALL still impresses and MANHATTAN looks gorgeous.)
However, the other night I fell asleep watching Turner Classic Movies (TCM), which happens more often than I’d like to admit, and woke up about twenty minutes into METROPOLITAN and it suddenly snapped into focus for me: yes, the Allen influence is there, as it is a film composed of vignettes about upper-class wanna-be Manhattan intellectuals who spend most of their time talking instead of taking action, but the real influence is Jane Austen and I just never realized it, despite the fact that Austen is referenced more than a few times in the film, especially PERSUASION.
An aside: I came along to Austen late in life, after I had first watched METROPOLITAN. While I wish it had been sooner, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed her novels as much as I did when I first read them as someone older. I haven’t read everything by her; I have a copy of LADY SUSAN and PERSUASION in my daunting to-read stack. I was at a wedding last year and lit up when someone at our table started talking about Austen and — to the visible frustration of her date — peppered her with Austen questions, including whether I should read PERSUASION first or watch LOVE & FRIENDSHIP. (She essentially responded: “They’re both great! There’s no wrong way to enjoy them!”)
METROPOLITAN is comprised of a number of chapters in rich socialites lives, mostly viewed from the point-of-view of lower-middle class nerd Tom Townsend (Edward Clements). Well-to-do Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman, who you may recognize from GILMORE GIRLS) takes a shining to him and guides him into his inner social circle, teaching him how to present as one of them. One of the women in the group, Audrey (Carolyn Farina), develops a crush on him but is too meek to do anything about it and watches as Tom pines for Serena (Ellia Thompson) while Serena is involved with an overly-confident, pony-tailed man named Rick (Will Kempe).
In other words: it’s all about repressed emotions and manners and presentation and social navigation, which Austen is very well-known for.
The primary allure here is the dialogue and interplay of characters, and the performers step up perfectly. There’s a rapport and tension between all of them that feels absolutely engaging. I’ll note that it’s shame that, apart from Eigeman, few of them have appeared in many other works.
For Stillman’s first film, he has a remarkable command over pacing and editing. While scenes often end abruptly via a fade-out, it manages to feel naturalistic. Additionally, the blocking is exceptionally handled, as well as John Thomas’s framing. Everyone is exquisitely laid out in ways that speak magnitudes of their character and conflicts, and Mary Jane Fort’s costume design fits perfectly for this world. (I’ll note that it was her first endeavor, but unlike most of the actors, she’s had a long career fashioning for film and TV.)
I will admit that the score is often overly-repetitive, but suits the film.
This is one of the fantastic facets for me as to having TCM constantly running in the background: it’s consistently about revisiting films, sometimes as comfort, but also often for re-evaluation, and I’m glad I did so for METROPOLITAN when it’s doubtful I would have otherwise.
“They’re doomed; they’re bourgeois; and in love. They’re all so … Metropolitan.”