Hollywood has been awfully hard on the rich. They come off as snobbish villains (Titanic) or snobbish fools (Gosford Park). At least, that’s what the writer and director Whit Stillman might have us believe. In 1990 he set out to redeem the image of the bourgeoisie with his first film, Metropolitan. This month Criterion released it on DVD, complete with a critical essay by Luc Sante, reminding us of the romantic purity of debutantes in a world of new money and tabloid culture. But in the 16 years since the movie’s release, Stillman’s defense of wealth has had a side effect, slightly unsettling to some of his fans: He has become known as one of the few Hollywood directors that conservatives love.
Stillman’s films were praised in the National Review, and in 2001, a collection of essays about them, Doomed Bourgeois in Love, appeared. It combines reviews with academic articles like “From Mansfield to Manhattan: The Abandoned Generation of Metropolitan” or “In Defense of Virtue.” In the introduction, “At Whit’s End,” Mark C. Henrie defends aristocratic morality: “Stillman’s films insist that there were (and are) true virtues in this class and its ideals.” The movies celebrate “knight-errantry” and demonstrate the threats posed by democracy (yes, democracy is a serious threat). “The gentle folk,” Henrie writes, “suffer the disorientation of modernity, the loss of tradition.”
It is hard to stomach these arguments, especially because I like Stillman’s movies. His clever dialogue and gentle irony seem too light and playful for this kind of reactionary pedantry. Still, I can’t say the Doomed Bourgeois writers are entirely off the mark. In Metropolitan, one of the young, affluent characters discusses Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. “When I heard that title,” he says, “I thought finally someone is going to tell the truth about the bourgeoisie.” He was, of course, sorely disappointed. “It would be hard to imagine a less fair and accurate portrait,” he complains. Stillman seems to agree. On the commentary track on the new DVD, he says that he had been harboring a “rebuttal” to Buñuel. Here you have it.
Metropolitan is either an elegy for the death of the upper classes disguised as a sweet, teen romance, or it is a sweet teen romance disguised as class elegy. It tells the story of a group of Manhattan teens—members of the self-described urban haute bourgeoisie (UHB, for short)—as they meet up for debutante balls over the Christmas holidays. They lounge around in formalwear, discussing the demise of their class and its cultural traditions. A prim Jane Austen lover falls for a sober outsider (he lives on the déclassé Upper West Side) who professes a commitment to socialism. The obstacles to their love are a cold but seductive flirt and a cartoonishly rakish baron. Our heroes resist these venal temptations and end up together in the bourgeois promise land—Southampton.
A deeply nostalgic film, Metropolitan is set, an inter-title tells us, “not so long ago.” But the characters habitually dress in dinner coats and tails and do not seem moored to a particular time period. They could have been plucked from any generation of privileged youth. (It must be said, though, that some of the ruffled pink dresses will never transcend the ‘80s) The film is shot mostly inside apartments with vaguely antique décor. The few exteriors—the Plaza, the 21 Club, a snowy Park Avenue—suggest an elegant old New York. Stillman tells us, in the commentary track, that he tried to shoot in places that were doomed. We see the characters in front of the old Scribner bookstore on Fifth Avenue or at the Midtown automat; they ride around almost exclusively in Checker cabs.
The dialogue is also free from a naturalism that might place the action in a real time and place. The characters deliver long, intellectual speeches with syntactical aplomb. “The term bourgeois,” says Charlie (Taylor Nichols), “has almost always been one of contempt, yet it is precisely” (who says, “yet it is precisely”?) “the bourgeoisie which is responsible for everything good that has happened in our civilization for the past four centuries.” The characters, it seems, represent 400 years of hot air.
It may be unclear in what year the events unfold, but these affluent teens are sure of one thing: They are at the end of an era. “With everything that’s going on,” laments Nick (Chris Eigeman) “this is probably the last deb season as we know it.” But what is the “everything” that is going on, imperiling this dreamy past? Charlie responds vaguely, “The stock market, the economy, contemporary social attitudes.” The list raises more questions than it answers. (For one, hasn’t there been a stock market for a while? In fact, isn’t the existence of the bourgeoisie based on the idea of … ? Oh, well, never mind.) Like any nostalgic vision, the point is regret, not nuance.
In Metropolitan Nick rhapsodizes, “So many things which were better in the past have been abandoned for supposed convenience.” He rails against his contemporaries. “Our generation is probably the worst since the Protestant Reformation.” It was Chris Eigeman’s first film role, and he is the most dynamic presence, seething with the snobbish charm that he would bring to the rest of Stillman’s films (Barcelona and Last Days of Disco). He makes Stillman’s retro-formal language sound perfectly reasonable, but a sly smile undermines the sincerity. “He’s the scoundrel. I should have thrashed him,” he announces while lying on a couch nursing a bloody nose.
This is the kind of comic irony that Stillman thrives on, and it belies simple conservative readings. The tuxedo-clad Tom calmly professes, “I’m a committed socialist, but not a Marxist. I favor the socialist model developed by the 19th-century social critic Fourier.” Sally, scowling in her pink dress and pearls, proclaims, “I can’t stand snobbery or snobbish behavior of any kind.” All of the speechifying seems so removed from the reality of these characters’ lives, not to mention our own, that it comes off as playacting. The film’s peculiar sexual politics (an archetypal cad is the villain; girls can actually be “ruined”) seem similarly anachronistic. When Tom wins his virtuous heroine through an act of chivalry involving a toy gun, the scene plays out like a Marx Brothers set piece.
Perhaps the most conservative thing about Metropolitan is that it is not about class at all. The characters don’t really venture out of their little group, and their money is treated more like a prop than a powerful subject. Their affluence hangs on them awkwardly like their gowns and tuxes. The panic about the “UHB” values seems, in the end, to be a form of teen angst more than a description of social change. And the reports of the death of the upper classes are greatly exaggerated. The net wealth of the richest Americans has actually grown at a much greater rate since the film appeared. I’m not sure if Metropolitan was good publicity for the aristocracy, but if you are concerned about the haute bourgeoisie, don’t worry. They’re doing fine.