Charlie: Of course there’s a God! We all basically know there is.
Cynthia: I know no such thing.
Charlie: Of course you do! When you think to yourself — and most of our waking life is taken up thinking to ourself — you must have that feeling that your thoughts aren’t entirely wasted, that in some sense they are being heard. I think it’s this sensation of silently being listened to with total comprehension that represents our innate belief in a supreme being, an all–comprehending intelligence. What it shows is that some kind of belief is innate in all of us. At some point most of us lose that, after which it can only be regained by a conscious act of faith.
Cynthia: And you’ve experienced that?
Charlie: No, I haven’t. I hope to someday.

It is a truism universally acknowledged, that Whit Stillman is the Jane Austen of indie film. But truisims only become truisms because they’re at least partly true, and this one most certainly is. Both Austen and Stillman bring an affectionate irony to their carefully observed studies of romance and social ritual among the young and privileged, whether in rural Britain around the turn of the eighteenth century or in uptown Manhattan at the end of the twentieth.

We don’t want to like these people: they have too much, they are too full of themselves. We delight in the author’s gentle skewering of their pretensions, the understated portrayal of their follies and the quietly relentless exposure of their casual cruelties. All too eager to see the high and mighty fall, we intuitively trust Stillman and Austen to be our guides in these exotic locales: their knowing attention to detail proves them to be insiders, their ironic distance shows them to be like us.

Little do we know, it’s all authorial strategy. These writers love the worlds they describe, love the characters they create, and in spite of ourselves we find before long that we’ve been won over. That sort of affection is contagious, and we end up bigger-hearted people for the experience.

In Metropolitan, we enter the world of debutante balls and exclusive Park Avenue afterparties through the character of Tom Townsend, a bookishly intelligent and humorless young man who is inadvertently drawn into “The S.F.R.P.” (the Sally Fowler Rat Pack) when a party of preppies mistakenly conclude that they’ve commandeered his cab. Tom disguises his inability to afford cabfare (or a decent overcoat) with high-sounding principles, they (approvingly) label him a “public transit snob,” and he’s in – all the while hiding his desperate loneliness and desire to fit in behind a deliciously transparent intellectual posturing, his attendance at the social functions he pretends to disdain cloaked in a condescending quasi-anthropological curiosity.

But his disdain and ours begins to fall away as the outspokenly snobbish Nick takes Tom under his wing, tutoring him in such matters as detachable collars and “the standards and ideals of the UHB” (the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie, which they prefer to terms like “preppie” or “yuppie.”). The artistry in the way Stillman crafts his story is seen most clearly in the way he shapes our perception of Nick (brilliantly played by Chris Eigeman, who became a fixture in Stillman’s films), as an initial impression of grating arrogance gives way to genuine respect and affection. Nick may not be like us, but by the end of the film we may wish we were more like Nick.

In his introduction to the Penguin edition of Pride And Prejudice, Tony Tanner calls that story “a drama of recognition,” which is to say, of re-cognition: as events unfold, not only the characters are called on to change their initial judgments of other characters, but so too the reader. Just as Elizabeth Bennet must revise her original assessment of the “proud” Mr. Darcy, and, in the process, expand her view of the world, so are our perceptions – indeed, our prejudices – challenged.

There is something significantly Christian in this shift from judgment to understanding, affection, even respect, in Metropolitan no less than Austen. One might call it the perspective of grace. In fact there are any number of other little markers that seem to hint at the writer-director’s transcendent intentions. The opening credits are heralded by “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” the opening phrase elegantly rendered by piano and string quartet before a sassy segue into the film’s neo-Jazz Age theme. We are introduced to Audrey (the film’s Fanny Price, a virtuous heroine whose favourite novel is Mansfield Park), then the title card “Manhattan – Christmas Vacation – Not so long ago” gives way to a shot of the Pan Am building, its office windows illuminated in the shape of a cross. Tom is swept up into the Sally Fowler afterparty, and we reach what Stillman describes as “the original beginning of the film”: an intense after-midnight conversation about the existence of God. “And you’ve experienced that?” “No, I haven’t. I hope to someday.” Which certainly tells us much about the essence of these characters, the gap between their sophisticated theories and their meagre life-experience, but which also seems to be the culmination of a whole sequence of references to Something Beyond the narrow concerns of the debutantes and their escorts.

One recurring motif in the film is the tendency of these naïve sophisticates to resolve any conversation about another character’s short-comings or questionable moral behaviour with some variation of “Well, he’s basically a good person.” Only the brash, truth-speaking liar, Nick, sees further into things. We take as essentially comic his early instructional monologue to Tom:

You haven’t seen this? Detachable collar. Not many people wear them anymore, they look much better. So many things which were better in the past have been abandoned to supposed convenience. It’s a small thing, but symbolically important. Our parents’ generation was never interested in keeping up standards. They wanted to be happy. Of course, the last way to be happy is to make it your objective in life.
I wonder if our generation is any better than our parents’?
Oh it’s worse. Our generation’s probably the worst since… the protestant reformation. Barbaric. But a barbarism far worse than the old-fashioned striaghtforward kind. Now barbarism is cloaked with all sorts of self-righteousness and moral superiority.
You’re obviously talking about a lot more than just detachable collars.
Yeah, I am.

Yet this is very much of a piece with his much more costly admission of personal guilt later in the film;

Charlie: So you’re just another hypocrite!
Nick: That’s not hypocrisy. It’s sin

In spite of Cynthia’s dismissive response that “It’s hardly that,” we feel that a deeper, starker truth has been spoken than we’ve heard in all the earnest self-disclosures and intellectual theories that comprise the bulk of the film’s dialogue. And later, when an evocative return to “A Mighty Fortress” underscores one of the film’s most touching (yet understated) scenes, that ancient hymn almost becomes Nick’s theme.

It would be a mistake to read Metropolitan as essentially a religious film, yet there’s no denying that faith – Protestant Christian faith, in particular – is part of the fabric of Whit Stillman’s world. As his characters move from the debutante balls of Metropolitan to the dance clubs of The Last Days Of Disco (1998) to overseas careers in Barcelona (1994), the childhood protections of naivete and privilege erode: Stillman’s characters are increasingly confronted with their own limitations and mortality, and find themselves reaching for something beyond what money, youth, and social standing can provide.

Fundamentally, though, these are not message movies. If there is serious spiritual intent beneath these delightfully comic surfaces, fear not – it’s cleverly concealed, if indeed it is there at all. Whatever these films may intimate about eternity, the chief pleasure they offer is the opportunity to spend time in the company of the gracious, erudite Whit Stillman and his earnest, bright, “basically good” young friends – however filthy rich they may be.

It bears mention that not everyone ends up liking these characters: for some viewers, the initial perception of pettiness, arrogance and self-preoccupation is only confirmed by ninety minutes spent in their presence. If Audrey alone is hard to fault on these grounds, her attraction to Tom may nonetheless baffle: what is there in his clued-out prickliness to win her love beyond a poorly disguised insecurity? But whether or not one finds her fondness for the wounded outsider sweet or admirable (or even an embodiment of grace), it is nonetheless entirely believable, played to understated perfection by Carolyn Farina, a non-actress discovered working the Macy’s perfume counter. I think one of the film’s real achievements is that it leaves room for us to draw our own conclusions, observing its characters acutely but never dictating our response – much in the manner of Jane Austen herself, or Noel Coward, even Oscar Wilde, who may not always like their characters, but always enjoy them. Whether or not we share Whit Stillman’s author’s affection for Audrey, Tom, Charlie and Nick, we can still delight in their wit – and in their witlessness, wittily observed.

See also…
Whit Stillman, Poet of the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie (Part 2): Barcelona (1994)
Whit Stillman, Poet of the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie (Part 3): The Last Days Of Disco (1998)