"The context of [Mansfield Park] and nearly everything Jane Austen wrote is near-ridiculous from today's perspective," one young character lectures another early in the film Metropolitan. "Has it ever occurred to you," the latter replies, "that today, looked at from Jane Austen's perspective, would look even worse?"
Finally available on DVD, Metropolitan is essentially an extension of this rebuttal. The 1990 debut by writer-director Whit Stillman (who subsequently completed his triptych with Barcelona and The Last Days of Disco), Metropolitan is a delightfully self-conscious anachronism, a touching comic rebuke of modern mores and manners told as the story of a vanishing class: the Protestant elite, the moneyed aristocracy, the preppies--or, as one character awkwardly dubs them, the UHB: "urban haute bourgeoisie."
The movie unfolds over the course of a debutante season in Manhattan, a few weeks straddling Christmas during which young women home from college are "introduced" to society at a series of fancy dress balls. Stillman is less concerned with these grand galas, however, than with the subsequent after-parties, small gatherings in one Upper East Side salon or another where the young ladies and their dates while away the nighttime hours carousing, playing games, and discussing their place in the universe. (The director's focus on these more intimate settings was mandated as much by expense as inclination: The budget for the entire film was just a few hundred thousand dollars.)
The surrogate with whom we explore this rarefied social enclave is Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), a callow but decent young man and self-imagined radical who, after attending one ball "almost accidentally" finds himself swept into a clique known as the "Sally Fowler Rat Pack"--or SFRP--for the deb in whose parents' home they typically hang out. An outsider both in terms of wealth (he and his divorced mom live in a small Upper West Side apartment) and ideology (he fancies himself a socialist), Tom initially resists his cooption by the SFRP. "It wouldn't be any great tragedy if some of these people lost their class prerogatives," he impoliticly observes to one of the very people he is disparaging. Yet gradually he warms to his adopted social milieu, and before long he, more even than his new friends, is striving to uphold the very aristocratic values he initially disdained.
It's easy to envision another filmmaker treating this material as the story of a young man of egalitarian disposition who, seduced by luxury and privilege, exchanges his democratic morals for a sense of elite entitlement--and, indeed, there are hints of this reading in Metropolitan. But Stillman's view of the old WASP establishment is more forgiving, even wistful, encompassing not only its decadence--talk about your fish in a barrel--but its decency as well, its sense of honor and virtue, learning and taste. (There's more than one mention of Veblen in the film.)
Stillman's characters are not just at, but seemingly from, a more innocent age. Young people with old money, they teeter between modernity and an anachronistic, half-imagined past. They recognize that their world--and with it perhaps their own relevance--is fast receding, and struggle with how to respond. Charlie (Taylor Nichols), the most philosophical (and most self-dramatizing) of the bunch, is obsessed with this obsolescence, declaring, "This is probably the last deb season as we know it," or, more succinctly, "We are all, in a sense, doomed." Audrey (Carolyn Farina), the Austen fan, loses herself in literature, adopting an almost nineteenth-century sense of propriety, while Cynthia (Isabelle Gillies) chooses the opposite path, an experiential journey of sex, drugs, and brutal honesty bordering on cruelty. Nick (the indispensable Christopher Eigeman) affects a marvelously witty air of sardonic snobbery. When, after a long disquisition on sartorial decline, Tom asks, "You're obviously talking about a lot more than just detachable collars," he smiles: "Yeah, I am."