**It's "Whit Stillman Week" at the Worthy of Note blog. This week, I'll be reviewing three films by one of my favorite directors, Whit Stillman. I hope you appreciate the reviews, and perhaps even the films.**
Whit Stillman is a rather obscure director, who produced a trifecta of films in the early 1990's that received critical acclaim and accolades, and shortly thereafter disappeared from public review. Yet those three films convey some of the most profound ideas ever treated on the silver screen. Stillman presents a world that is simultaneously elevated and oddly realistic. He treats humans as they actually are -- with small moments of epiphany, catharsis and barely discernible movements of the soul -- and humans as we wish they were -- with rich interplay of ideas and complete sentences. It is a challenge to even approach these films, let alone to appreciate them fully, but comprehension is immensely rewarding when it comes.
"Metropolitan," Stillman's Oscar-nominated first film (1990, Best Original Screenplay), presents the rather insular world of New York youth in the midst of the debutante ball season. They are the self-identified urban haute bourgeoisie, preppies for short, and the film is driven by their conversation. The movie begins as the members of the "Sally Fowler Rat Pack" leave a ball to head to the after-party, and stumble across the rather lonesome Tom. They insist he join them, and so they all head to Sally's apartment for an evening of upper class diversions and pretensions.
Each personality on display is a truly delicious mix of sincerity and facetiousness, insight and utter ignorance. Tom, the newcomer, serves as our eyes in this strange world, and we find him to be just as lost in the confusion as we are. On the other hand, Audrey, the shy and soft-spoken fixture of the group, serves as our emotional anchor to this world. Tom and Audrey seem to be almost polar opposites, but in their conversation and mutual respect we find the themes of this film.
The centerpiece of "Metropolitan" involves the concept of tradition. These are children on the verge of adulthood, but the adults themselves are almost entirely absent. Of the three adults who actually appear, two are relegated to wardrobe (Audrey's mother hems a dress, Tom's mother prompts him to return his tuxedo) while the third is a stranger who joins the group's conversation but is quickly shunted off to the side. Theirs is a world without authority, without role models, without tradition.
That is not to say that adults don't loom large in their conversation, even in absentia. Audrey worries that her father “believes himself to be a failure; but I don’t think he is!" Tom's parents had been divorced for several years, and though he initially considers himself "very close" to his father, he discovers his childhood toys dumped unceremoniously outside his father's old apartment and discovers that his father had moved across the country without telling him. It is a heartbreaking image -- a son no longer wanted by his father -- and made all the potent by our previous realization that Tom is truly lost without an anchor.
Tom can boast an active mind, but he has little understanding or appreciation of the past. For instance, he doesn't read actual literature, but prefers literary criticism (under Audrey's tutelage, he discovers the value of a good book by reading Jane Austen). Audrey, on the other hand, appreciates convention, even though she doesn't fully understand it.One of the girls proposes a game such that the loser must answer truthfully any question put to them. Audrey objects, saying that people don't go around revealing secrets for a reason, and that the game could be dangerous. Others respond that they can't think of why not, but Audrey replies: "You don't have to! Other people have, and that's why it became a convention." The game proceeds over her objections, and secrets are revealed, including one particularly hurtful to Audrey. Her own wounds vindicate her argument: it is wise to follow tradition, even when and especially when you can't think of the reasons for it.
By first impressions, Nick comes across as the antithesis of Audrey: a smug bastard who gives himself airs and lashes others with a biting wit. Over the course of the film, however, he grows closer to Tom and we see more and more of his true character. Nick is as quick to listen as he is to talk: he insults everyone, but is able to empathize to a unique degree. At one point, he persuades Tom to remain in the group by pointing out Audrey’s emotional vulnerability, and noting that she might be hurt by Tom’s departure. In a conversation about, of all things, detachable shirt collars, Nick comments that so many things are abandoned with time that ought not be. Tom replies, "You're obviously talking about a lot more than detachable collars."
Even the ending reinforces Nick's centrality to Tom's transformation. Nick is caught in a lie that damaged another preppie's reputation (though his excuse that it was "a half truth. A compilation. Like New York Magazine does!" actually appears accurate). Nick is excluded from the group after that point, and disappears to visit his (divorced) father and (evil) stepmother upstate. At the train station, he bids Tom farewell, but reveals that Tom is the last of the old guard, the one person who uniquely relates to the values Nick holds dear. That is the emotional turning point for Tom, and inspires him to fight for Audrey's honor when called upon in the next scene.
It turns out that Audrey didn't need defending, but had undergone a transformation of her own. Under the influence of Tom, she had learned to take initiative and act with prudential virtue: she flexed her allegiance to convention, but remained constant to virtue in practice. She had gone into the lair of an amorous preppie, to serve as a chaperone for her friend. She had in fact been defending the honor of another, when Tom shows up. In confusion, Tom notes that it was not what her hero Jane Austen would have done, but her only respond is to smile and acquiesce. She knows, and accepts, the distinction.
By the end of the film, the kids have grown up. From within their authority-less microcosm of modern society, they overcame the saccharine naïveté of their youth and latched onto a tradition and a mature mode of behavior. This is no "Peter Pan," no fantasy of eternal childishness. But nor is this "The Breakfast Club," in which adulthood is found through self-discovery. Indeed, defeating the misguided morals of the Brat Pack film may be considered at the heart of Stillman's work, particularly his final film "The Last Days of Disco." Rather, it is through a sense of tradition, of obligations to the social order, that the children find virtue and thus find happiness.
It is something of a joke that arthouse films are those in which nothing happens: they sometimes lack the sort of grand story or overarching plot for an audience to follow. Yet Stillman's films portray a much richer story than those of other films. Most are content to depict essentially archetypal characters reacting to events -- the stories occur externally, whether from changes in fortune, love or situation. The personalities rarely change as a result of events, and if they do the changes are generally superficial. Stillman depicts essentially real humans (if they are admittedly idealized conversationalists) who learn from minor events and grow as a result. The story occurs internally, and the movements of personality are complex and sometimes ineffable. If the results can be expressed at all, it can easily require an essay to fully comprehend. "Metropolitan" is one of those films that requires and rewards multiple viewing. Stillman treats film as a canvas for truth, not beauty, yet creates beauty through the characters developing their own humanity.