“You know the French film ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’? When I first heard the title, I thought ‘Finally someone’s gonna tell the truth about the bourgeoisie!’ What a disappointment.” – Charlie Black in “Metropolitan”
No matter how the political winds shift, one group has always been a safe target for scorn on the silver screen: the upper class. While Hollywood has built many films around sexy, charismatic jet-setters and even billionaire super-heroes, movies have also made coin over the decades by portraying snooty socialites as selfish boors, often in contrast to the honest and decent working stiffs (i.e. most of the audience). Independent and foreign films have contributed to the project as well. Luis Buñuel built his career by depicting the decadence of the wealthy, and Jean-Luc Godard spent part of the 60s doing the same. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film in which the word “bourgeoisie” was used as anything other than a derogatory term, at least not until Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan” (1990).
It would be easy to make fun of the people in “Metropolitan” too. They are the children of the upper crust of New York society, wealthy kids in their late teens and early twenties who are born to privilege and are not ashamed of it. They don’t slip on jeans and t-shirts to meet up at White Castle. Instead, they spend their weekends in suits and fancy dresses, gathering in swanky apartments to discuss philosophy, politics, literature and fashion, subjects they know just enough about to be dangerous, if only to themselves.
Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) isn’t part of their group, but soon gets swept into it when he arrives unexpectedly at Sally Fowler’s private party. Tom doesn’t approve of such events; he finds them pretentious. Naturally everybody at the party finds Tom’s objections fascinating and they quiz him about his quaint beliefs: He’s a socialist but not a Marxist; actually he’s a Fourierist. This spawns a whole evening full of conversation and assures that Tom will be accepted into the SFRP: The Sally Fowler Rat Pack. And it’s a good thing because the women in the SFRP desperately need another man. After all, “There is a real escort shortage. It’s no joke!”
Against his better judgment, Tom finds he enjoys his new friends. He particularly admires Nick Smith (Christopher Eigeman) a walking, talking F. Scott Fitzgerald character. In turn, Audrey (Carolyn Farina) falls for Tom which means that Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols) hates Tom because Charlie secretly loves Audrey. Tom is oblivious to the whole mess because he loves Serena Slocum (Elizabeth Thomson) who seems to have been involved with just about everybody at some point. And they all hate smug, suave Rick Von Sloneker (Will Kempe), or at least the men do, mostly because the women don’t.
“Metropolitan” is a proudly literary film. The characters not only talk about books incessantly (Tom forms strong opinions about novels he has never read) but they speak like characters from a book as well, probably because they’re imitating their favorite characters (even the ones from novels they’ve never read). Their speech patterns are formal, deliberate, and long-winded. It all takes a lot of getting used to, but once you fall into the rhythm, it’s like listening to music.
What a strange and alien world Stillman has created. These are people who talk about debutante balls the way most people talk about the Superbowl; they even watch the big deb ball on TV. They live in their own hermetic world, completely oblivious to anything else going on in the city apart from the SFRP. They even invent their own language. Charlie coins the term U.H.B. (Ultra Haute-Bourgeoisie) to describe them. Nick likes the word, but thinks it should be pronounced “Ub” while Charlie simply prefers to use the letters in the acronym. Is this how religious schisms begin?
In “Alphaville” (1965), Jean-Luc Godard transformed Paris into a semiotic dystopia by focusing on certain details of the city and eliminating everything else. Stillman performs his own sleight-of-hand with New York, re-imaging the city as a series of swank apartments, hotel lobbies, and deserted night-time streets. There are no instantly recognizable New York landmarks in the movie; this can’t possibly be the same city Woody Allen shot in. Though the film is set in 1990, Stillman crafts a world with a timeless, anachronistic quality. Title cards indicate that the events took place “not so long ago.” The suits, the apartment décor, even the Checker cabs could all belong to just about any time from the latter half of the 20th century, yet there’s still a decidedly modern quality about the movie. And it all looks fabulous. For a low budget, independent film, “Metropolitan” looks remarkably slick and polished. If any corners were cut during production, it doesn’t show on screen.
The real achievement of “Metropolitan,” though, is the manner in which Stillman humanizes all these characters. Anyone looking from the outside would probably find them unbearbaly pretentious. Sometimes they just seem clueless: a simple trip out of New York becomes a major challenge when Tom and Charlie are shocked to learn they can’t rent a car without a driver’s license. They are instantly recognizable as the sort of movie characters we love to hate, or at least to make fun of: the uptight know-it-alls, the snobs, the sort of people the Stooges throw pies at.
Certainly there are times we laugh with them and even at them, but Stillman is not out to mock these fortunate sons and daughters. Instead, he wants to understand them, to find out what makes them tick. When Tom and Audrey discuss Jane Austen, the conversation at first seems absurd, but soon you realize how earnest they both are. They really do want to learn and to communicate with each other. If they think they know more than they really do, that’s because they’re still young and haven’t had time to learn all the things they don’t know.
They are concerned about the future and are looking for love, friendship and happiness. Basically, they’re just like any other group of young men and women. They just dress a little nicer.
The Blu-ray is presented in its original 1.66:1 widescreen format. The film was shot on super-16 and the photography by John Thomas looks phenomenal. The high-def transfer was created from a 35 mm blowup which already looked strong on the 2006 SD release, and benefits greatly from 1080p treatment. Obviously, the blow-up has a heavy grainy texture and the high-def treatment renders the grain in exquisite detail, enhancing the slightly anachronistic qualities of the film. There’s also a noticeable improvement in the contrast as more of the brown and greyish tones stand out from each other than on the SD.
The film is presented in linear PCM Mono. I didn’t notice any significant difference between the Dolby Digital Mono of the SD and this lossless mono, but both sound good. The jazzy soundtrack by Mark Suozzo and Tom Judson sets just the right mood and sounds great on this audio transfer. Optional English subtitles support the English audio.
The extras have all been imported from the relatively bare-bones SD release, so we don’t get much.
The only substantial feature is the feature-length commentary track (recorded in 2005) by Stillman, Eigeman, Nichols and editor Chris Tellefesen. The commentary is, however, an unusually interesting one as Stillman offers genuine insight into the film rather than the typical gossip.
Also included on the disk are Outtakes (10 min. total), Alternate Casting (4 min., including an appearance by legendary filmmaker Lloyd Kaufman), and the original Theatrical Trailer.
The slim fold-out insert booklet features a four-page essay by Luc Sante which was also included with the 2006 SD release.
At one point, Charlie Black says, “The truth is the bourgeoisie does have a lot of charm.” “Metropolitan” proves that Charlie is right. I don’t usually go for “all-talk” independent films, but the discreet charms of “Metropolitan” are simply irresistible.
Criterion’s release of “Metropolitan” doesn’t have much in the way of extras and nothing was added for this Blu-ray release, but the 1080p transfer is definitely an upgrade from the previous (though still very strong) SD transfer. Criterion has also released Stillman’s “The Last Days of Disco”(1998) on Blu-ray this week.