It’s Christmas Eve in New York, and at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, a silent tear runs down Audrey Rouget’s face. It’s an image from Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990), a film that deserves to be revered as more than just an American holiday classic.
Even the most literary families watch films at Christmas. Like a festive dinner, it’s not the novelty that is important. It’s the familiar repetition—the reassuring company of a film you can watch again and again because, just like carols, it’s part of Christmas. But there’s more to that with Metropolitan.
Metropolitan is set among college-age society types on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It’s the season of debutante balls and afterparties, populated by smart conversation, love, and possibly loss. On the one hand it’s a story of which bright young thing loves which, but on the other it’s a reflection on the idea that for the “urban haute bourgeoisie” (UHB) the whole metaphorical party is drawing to a close.
For many of its viewers, Stillman’s film provides vicarious entry into an exclusive world of wealth, style, and leisure. The audience’s proxy character is the Princeton undergraduate Tom Townsend (Edward Clements). Tom has (or thinks he has) socialist tendencies and is certainly not rich. And although “socially inexpert,” he is adopted by the “Sally Fowler Rat Pack,” who teach him how to fit in and even enjoy their social life, despite the fact that his resources are “limited.” It’s about class and not just wealth, we discover, and a little like Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, Tom is seduced by a world of which he is not fully a part.
Audrey (endearingly played by Carolyn Farina), is both interested in Tom and an avowed Janeite. As with Austen, Metropolitan has clever dialogue and wry humor, but by today’s standards, not a lot actually happens. There are drawing rooms, balls, and misdirected romances. It’s a mostly gentle film, and carefully observed. The characters are entitled and, in some ways, unworldly, but they are at the same time well-educated and (mostly) well-intentioned. We end up rooting for them, of course, and we hope that Audrey will not have to cry again.
For New Yorkers the locations are familiar and there are conversations we may recognize from our own college days: “You do not have to have read a book to have an opinion on it,” Tom states with authority. “I don’t read novels. I prefer good literary criticism.” Indeed: “With fiction, I can never forget that none of it really happened—that it’s made up by the author.” The scene then fades to black. Perfect.
The resonances with Brideshead are less overt than those with Mansfield Park, but remember the scene from the television version in which Charles and Sebastian are quaffing fine wine by a fountain. “Ought we to be drunk every night?” asks Charles. “Yes. I think we should,” says Sebastian, who falls into the water. Compare this with Metropolitan’s Sally (Dylan Hundley), who eventually says, “We can’t just get together with the same people every night for the rest of our lives.” Tom: “I don’t see why not.”
Sally is not alone in sensing the end not just of her own “Rat Pack” but of the whole social scene. “With everything that is going on,” sighs Nick (Christopher Eigeman) “it’s probably the last deb season as we know it. I don’t want to hang around and watch the decline.” Nobody is sure what “everything” actually means, but despite the glamor, there is an awareness that the debutantes are both vulnerable and “on display.” As for the televised International Debutante Ball, it was assembled “like a tourist attraction” and “extremely vulgar.” It was not “UHB” at all. Nostalgia, or at least anachronism, are running concerns, with detachable collars, for example, standing for far more than just menswear. “So many things which were better in the past have been abandoned for supposed convenience,” says Nick outside Brooks Brothers: those may be small things “but symbolically important.” A leitmotif is the generationally honored concern that standards are slipping—although here it is the youngsters and not their parents who are doing the complaining.
Although it was released in 1990, Metropolitan was inspired by Stillman’s own experiences of the debutante-party scene in New York some twenty years earlier. And although it is certainly not a documentary, many of the characters are based on real people, some of whom still recognize themselves on screen today. The result is a palimpsest in which themes reaching back to 1969 bleed through. Stillman’s film is not a period piece, however: it has a deliberate timelessness, with an intertitle telling us it is set “Not So Long Ago.” Fortunately for the film’s designers, the preppy upper middle classes have long clung to a perpetuated past including their taste in formal wear and interior design. On top of that, while well-received, the film was not overexposed in its day, and with a cast of mostly unknowns, it is easier to identify now with their characters rather than the actors’ star personae.
This all helps explain the film’s lasting appeal. A 4K restored version was shown to a packed audience at Yale in September; Stillman, who is also the writer (Metropolitan was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 1991 Oscars), was on hand to field questions. His film remains thematically salient to the current educated, young elite: the conflict of personal unease with sophomoric certainty; the challenge of change; the threat of downward mobility; and the fear that if these really are the best days of their lives, there is only one likely direction of travel.
Holiday viewers in 2022 can ponder whether in the age of social media, the debutante scene really is at an end, and whether as a class, the urban haute bourgeoisie are genuinely doomed. Perhaps, in reality, both are merely changed. Could it be, then, that “with everything that is going on,” Metropolitan is indeed a classic—but not just for Christmas?