Metropolitan (1990)

One of my very favorite films of 2021 was the jaded, delicately surreal comedy French Exit, which cast Michelle Pfeiffer & Lucas Hedges as idle-rich Manhattanites who sail away to a self-destructive vacation in Paris.  It took all my restraint to not compare the film’s Upper Manhattan wealth-class humor to the teen soap opera Gossip Girl in my review, since I recently caught up with all seven seasons of the show (and counting!) for the first time, and it was my closest pop culture comparison point to that milieu.  A much more apt, highbrow comparison might have been the various films of Whit Stillman, whose work feels like a major influence on the absurdly literary dialogue in French Exit, along with their shared hoity-NYC setting.  Even the characters on Gossip Girl likely would have caught the Stillman influence of French Exit (it’s a very cinephile-friendly show!), but I’m not as cultured as those champagne-sipping high schoolers.  I’m a thirtysomething office drone from Chalmette who gets by on box wine & Union coffee, and I just saw my first proper Whit Stillman movie.

Stillman’s calling card debut, Metropolitan, is a much funnier film than I expected.  Although it’s less surreal, it reminded me a lot of what I loved about the overly affected dialogue in French Exit, and it had me laughing just as hard throughout.  The film is mostly a series of late-night living room “after parties” following debutante balls, where wealthy teenagers on the verge adulthood share cocktails & gossip until dawn in their tuxes & gowns.  They’re essentially sleepover slumber parties, but they’re treated as if they were historic, era-defining salons, where every minor social maneuver is treated as a political, philosophical act.  Characters debate the advantages of Socialism vs. Marxism with the same self-seriousness that they select their escorts for the following night’s dance.  They’re playing at being grown-ups & intellectuals, dressing up in early-90s gala finery and floating hot-take opinions on literature they’ve never read.  And it’s all delivered in a formal, deliberately chosen vocabulary that underlines just how absurd their political parlor games sound to an audience of outsiders.

While my recent viewing habits have me comparing Whit Stillman’s signature style to Gossip Girl & French Exit, it’s much more common (and likely more accurate) to call Metropolitan a 1990s update to Jane Austen’s comedies of manners.  There are plenty of Austen novels that track the overtly political maneuvers of gossip & romantic pairings as they play out in a series of ritualistic parties & dances, often among unmarried youth.  The only other Stillman film I’ve seen to date was even an adaptation of one of those novels: 2016’s Love & FriendshipMetropolitan can easily be understood as a 1:1 update to that exact social battlefield, just with its 90s NYC combatants calling cabs instead of carriages.  Before you have a chance to pat yourself on the back for making that connection independently, characters openly debate the merits of Jane Austen’s fiction onscreen at length – signaling that Stillman knows exactly what he’s doing.  Please forgive me for pointing out that Gossip Girl also had a habit of repeating plots & tropes from well-known works, and then directly citing those titles in-dialogue for the teens taking notes at home.  I even doubt it’s fully a coincidence that both GG & Metropolitan feature a heartbreaking “it girl” heiress named Serena at their center of their respective dramas; Serena van der Woodsen registers as a direct homage to Serena Slocum in retrospect.

French Exit is somewhat of an outlier in the pop culture tryptic I’m framing here, in that it’s about bitter, self-deprecating upper-classers at the end of their ropes, while the preppy youths of Metropolitan & Gossip Girl are adorably full of life despite their pretentious airs.  It still matches the hyper-specific verbal & circumstantial humor of Metropolitan, though, and I find it difficult to convey what makes either film so funny to anyone who isn’t instantly on their shared wavelength.  In both cases, it’s the worst-behaved, most out of touch Manhattanites in the main cast that land all the best, most peculiar zingers: Michelle Pfeiffer as the suicidal, past-her-prime “it girl” in French Exit and Chris Eigeman as the world’s most pretentious cad in Metropolitan.  I cannot convey exactly why Eigeman describing dancing the cha-cha as “no more ridiculous than life itself” or his caddiest rival as “one of the worst guys of modern times” is one of the funniest performances I’ve ever seen onscreen, no more than I can convey why Michelle Pfeiffer sharpening kitchen knives in the dark or describing the nature of dildos as “sad” hit me in the exact same comedic sweet spot.  I’ve already demonstrated to myself that I’ll watch hundreds of hours of a chaotically varied quality soap opera set in this exact wealth class bubble, so of course I’m also a total sucker for the couple instances when Gossip Girl‘s insular, largely frivolous conflicts are played for high art.

-Brandon Ledet

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