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When we first saw Metropolitan, the '90s had barely dawned, and somehow the idea of watching a bunch of debutantes (but not debutards!) sit around debating the merits of Jane Austen, socialism, and the merits of the Plaza was very appealing indeed. Whit Stillman's first feature film was a kind of WASPy version of Woody Allen's Manhattan, and to someone who was growing up in a relatively boring suburb, with mundane pursuits like swim team practice and piano lessons, the world Stillman portrayed was not only completely foreign, but also alluring. It was of a piece with the romantic Algonquin Hotel versions of New York that, even when they existed, probably didn't really so much exist in real life as in the popular imagination.
A new Criterion Collection DVD of Metropolitan was released a few months ago, and watching it again after a few years reminded us how great the movie is. The story centers around a girl named Audrey Rouget, who's sensitive and bookish while her so-called friends—whom she seems to have little in common with other than having gone to the same expensive boarding schools—are much more interested in boys than books.
Audrey falls for a newcomer to their crowd, a relatively poor chap named Tom Townsend, who doesn't own an overcoat, much less a tux, and takes buses as opposed to cabs. Tom is an intellectual snob, though, who puts down Audrey's love of Jane Austen even as he admits he's never actually read any of her books.
The circle of friends is rounded out by Nick, a pompous yet somewhat lovable guy who is kind of a ringleader; Sally Fowler, at whose huge Upper East Side apartment the crowd gathers after the deb balls; Charlie, a dorky guy who pines for Audrey even as she crushes on Tom; Jane, who's slept with Nick, though that's something of a secret; Serena Slocum, the slutty boarding school girl who has around 20 boyfriends at different schools, including Tom Townsend; and Rick von Slonecker, Serena's boyfriend, of whom Nick opines, "Rick Von Slonecker is tall, rich, good looking, stupid, dishonest, conceited, a bully, liar, drunk and thief, an egomaniac, and probably psychotic. In short, highly attractive to women."
Metropolitan won't win any awards for egalitarianism, but that's not the point. Stillman would bring back several of these characters in his subsequent films, Last Days of Disco and Barcelona, but the world he captured in Metropolitan (the opening credits inform us that the movie takes place in Manhattan—Not so Long Ago) is one that exists perfectly in his imagination. And it's irresistible.