Twilight of the Urban Haute Bourgeoise
By Alexander Raubo · 30 December 2023
Whit Stillman's "Metropolitan": A Modern Review
Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990) is a film about the disintegration of a social circle and a social class. The story centers on Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), a Princeton freshman back in Manhattan for a Christmas vacation. Tom is a self-proclaimed follower of Charles Fourier, who decides to attend a debutante ball for, he explains, purely sociological reasons. As a result of a quixotic act of courtesy, Tom gets invited to the afterparty at Sally Fowler’s (Dylan Hundley), a young Manhattan doyenne at the center of her own ‘Rat Pack’. There he meets Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols), a philosopher anxious about his own downward social mobility, Nick Smith (Christopher Eigeman), the circle’s wit and central intelligence, and Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina), a shy and bookish girl whom we see at the very beginning of the film despairing over her hideous white debutante gown.
Audrey falls for Tom and attempts to court him through conversations about Jane Austen. Tom, serious and somewhat restless, is disarmed by the generosity of the Rat Pack, and when he fails to return his rented dinner jacket on time, agrees to be Audrey’s escort to another debutante ball. An encounter with his prep-school crush Serena Slocum (Ellia Thompson) at the ball leads Tom to abandon his duties as escort, upsetting Audrey, and adding a link to a chain of unrequited loves stretching from Charlie, who loves Audrey, to the titled bad boy aristocrat Rick von Sloneker (Will Kempe), one of Serena’s boyfriends.
Like Eric Rohmer, Stillman has a novelistic sensibility, and the fate of the novel is one of the themes of the film. Tom objects to Audrey’s literary preferences, claiming that the appeal of Mansfield Park depends on social mores that have long been superseded. Audrey retorts by flipping Tom’s imputed historical asymmetry: ‘Has it ever occurred to you that today, looked at from Jane Austen’s perspective, would look even worse?’ Tom admits later, in an oft memed sequence, that he doesn’t read fiction but prefers literary criticism, and particularly the critic Lionel Trilling. A dislike of artificiality permeates his early dealings with the Rat Pack. When Nick gives Tom a talking-to about his behavior towards Audrey, he pits the empathy and moral concern of the novel against the cold, egoistic reasoning of criticism. The novel, to Stillman, is a conservative force, and it’s on a par with, if not dependent on, a high degree of civilized socialization.
Sally Fowler’s Rat Pack doesn’t survive Christmas when Nick, the group’s centripetal force, goes upstate. Before leaving, Nick antagonizes part of the group through his semi-fabricated accusation of rape against von Sloneker. Nick’s dislike of von Sloneker is in part motivated by sexual jealousy, and in part by class antagonism. “The titled aristocracy are the scum of the earth,” he says at two points in the film. They are scum because their social position is “secure no matter what they do,” unlike the class that Nick and Charlie belong to, the ‘preppies’, WASPs, or in Charlie’s own terminology, the “Urban Haute Bourgeoise” (UHB).
According to Charlie, UHBs are doomed because their culture is expensive to maintain and entirely inimical to the demands of lucrative careers in finance and tech. Like the Sloane Rangers in London, UHBs are relatively established, educated at elite schools, and present at upper-class events, whether it be Ascot or debutante balls. But they’re not wealthy enough to forgo labor, their lifestyles being funded through salaries rather than interest earned on a large asset portfolio.
Charlie attributes his predictions of downward social mobility to the mediocrity of his parents. Neither they, nor himself, are talented enough to compete against an international pool of talent, nor wealthy enough to insure themselves against the inflationary effects of foreign capital. Like the Sloane Rangers, the UHBs can expect to be displaced from the Upper East Side to more peripheral areas of town and find themselves priced out of their lifestyle.
Halfway through the film, we learn that Tom has already experienced the downward social mobility that Charlie still only fears. As a result of his parents’ divorce, Tom is disinherited and forced to live with his mother in a small flat in the shabby West Side of Manhattan. While his childhood afforded him financial security and access to elite institutions, his relatively pauperized adolescence forces him to contend with his outsider status and cover his ressentiment with a defensive intellectualism.
Tom’s experience reflects that of Stillman’s own. A Harvard graduate from an UHB background with divorced parents, Stillman spent close to two decades working various jobs before he was able to pursue his ambition as a filmmaker. “I wanted to be a filmmaker since college but there just seemed no way to do it. And while I was thinking, writing stuff, trying to plot making it into film, John Sayles, Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee were making their tiny budget films that reached an audience.”
Inspired by the wave of American independent films during the late eighties, Stillman pulled together the money for Metropolitan by selling the insider rights to his New York flat. It was the first film for both actors and director, and a box office success, grossing some three million dollars against a budget of only $200,000, earning him an Oscar nomination for best screenplay. The profits allowed Stillman to make two more films in the nineties, Barcelona (1994) and Last Days of Disco (1998), before taking a decade-long hiatus, returning with Damsels in Distress in 2011. It’s a testament to the difficulty of breaking into the established film world that none of the actors in Metropolitan have enjoyed independent careers in the industry. Allison Parisi, who plays Jane Clark, for example, has subsequently managed to gain ‘15 years of experience in human resources’ according to her LinkedIn profile.
The debutante balls in Metropolitan serve as a metaphor for the declining significance of UHB institutions, and Stillman’s own experience speaks to the diminishing value of an Ivy League education. It has become a rite of passage among tech billionaires today to drop out of college rather than to continue to identify with school and college culture well into adulthood. Metropolitan also brilliantly depicts the secular cycles of subcultures and the ephemerality of social scenes – points which apply universally.
Will anyone despair at the twilight of the UHBs? Only people like Charlie and Nick, who are committed to their culture independently of its social significance. Stillman’s playful and ironic treatment of the personal and class predicaments of his characters is balanced by his novelistic sensibility which charges both middle-class ressentiment and student radicalism with moral insensitivity. One can think of Metropolitan as a kind of reverse comedy-of-manners: instead of satirizing the artificial manners of a decadent elite it finds something exemplary in them.