It’s always a risk for a film to give you too many pointers about how to read it; most people like to work that out for themselves. But I was very charmed by a moment about halfway into Whit Stillman’s 1990 debut Metropolitan – reissued on Region 2 Blu-Ray by Criterion – where Taylor Nichols’s nervy, fractious intellectual Charlie Black all but reviews the film he appears in. He’s actually talking about Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoise, which he watched in the hope that someone had – at last! – made a pro-bourgeois film. Naturally, he was disappointed. But his criticism – that it’s almost conformist, at this remove, to have a go at the well-off, and that it might be more subversive to give them a sympathetic hearing – stands as a mission statement for Stillman’s film. At the same time, it’s not as if Stillman is making a piece of political advocacy, or an ethnographic documentary about upper-crust young New Yorkers. Metropolitan is a comedy of manners, a genre which Stillman is adamant will work wherever there are manners. He himself has transplanted this subgenre to American expats in Spain, the 1970s disco scene, a modern college and Regency England.
The keynote of Stillman’s work is observation: not surprising, considering he started off as a journalist. I think there are definitely characters he likes more than others in Metropolitan; Audrey, played by the appealingly vulnerable Carolyn Farina, shares Stillman’s fondness for Jane Austen, and it seems reasonable to read her defences of Mansfield Park as voice-of-author. Other characters are more ambiguous. Stillman regular Chris Eigeman plays Nick Smith, a young outsider to the central group who is infatuated with his ex-girlfriend Serena, despite discovering she has cheated on him and is now dating a young aristocrat with the peerlessly old-world name of Rick Van Sloneker. At the time, Nick’s pining after Serena would have aligned him with the lovestruck young men of John Hughes’s films, to which Metropolitan can be read as a cheerfully anti-populist retort. Those films have recently been re-examined in the light of Molly Ringwald’s recent New Yorker article about working on them, and it’s to Metropolitan’s credit that it works just as well for people (like me) who always found Hughes irksome. To 21st-century eyes, Nick might look like an embittered ‘nice guy’, particularly when he fabricates a scandalous story to blacken Rick’s name. Taking against Nick doesn’t make the film stop working, though. Stillman is comfortable having a fair few laughs at his expense, particularly when he has to come up with some excruciatingly pretentious explanations of how his fraudulent story about Rick actually expresses Rick’s essential truth.
It’s this kind of ambiguity that makes Metropolitan timeless. Stories about the well-off tend to live or die depending on how they view their characters; Wes Anderson loves his, Alex Ross Perry hates his (though never as much as I hate them), Noah Baumbach switches back and forth. Stillman is just hanging back, raising an eyebrow, an expansive, humane method that allows the audience to find their own space within the story. Even that Buñuel anecdote, as prescriptive as it may seem, is allowed to face a comeback. He’s a Surrealist, retorts a party guest. They have to make fun of the rich. Extras are a little thinner than normal for Criterion – perhaps they felt a film this dialogue-driven can speak for itself. John Thomas’s cinematography, unusually warm and colourful for a film set in the dead of winter, comes across well on the transfer, and Stillman pops up in witty form on the commentary. There are some interesting behind the scenes clips, some of which show roles being played by actors other than the ones who ended up in the final film. In one case Allen Green, eventually played by John Lynch, is played by Lloyd Kaufman. Yes, Lloyd ‘Troma’ Kaufman. Criterion have found the link between Love and Friendship and Citizen Toxie: The Toxic Avenger IV that you never knew existed.