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The Kids Stay In The Picture: Whit Stillman

Fifteen years on, the recognizable world of Whit Stillman's Metropolitan

A still from Whit Stillman's Metropolitan

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Wednesday, August 24, 2005

By Nathan Kosub

The director Whit Stillman insists in interviews that he isn't finished with movies. But the seven years since his last picture, The Last Days of Disco, obscure why we should miss him. Wait long enough and your reputation becomes you. Even The Last Days of Disco is mistakenly nostalgic for some untranslatable Manhattan artifice. But Metropolitan ? Stillman's debut ? deserves more credit than the conservative comedic perspective of his so-called ?urban haute bourgeoisie? has allowed him. The movie is fifteen years old this August, and more and more looks like one of the great movies about growing up.

Superficially, of course, it is anything but that, and might instead seem only a self-conscious chronicle of a debutante season in New York City, peopled by rich boys and girls. WASPs dressed down in coats and ties swarm just enough to cloud the archetypal tale of boy meets girl. The boy is Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), oblivious to most of what's around him. And Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina), who begins the movie in tears after her brother insults her brand-new dress, has liked Tom ever since she saw the letters he wrote another girl at boarding school.

That's the story, essentially. Tom meets Audrey, rejects her, and eventually regrets that. But the trap Stillman sets for his parable of first love is baited with irony, with the allure of the unfamiliar ? of Manhattan society unto itself ? and with lots of new faces (a whole cast of beginners). It almost seems a New York film, there to dismiss if you're not a New Yorker. But it isn't.

Yes, the characters talk about class and privilege. They smoke cigarettes in drawing rooms and compare private educations. Because Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman) doesn't take it all too seriously, he becomes the story's shepherd. His Sally Fowler Rat Pack ? innocent adolescents set on adulthood ? attends dances and hosts after-parties. Tom was introduced by accident one winter night and fell in with them. He reads criticism but not novels. His father has left him and cut off communication. Unlike the rest, Tom is middle-class.

Audrey is among the young women in the circle; the movie begins and ends with her. She is sensitive and considerate, excited by Tom's smart talk but happy to disagree with it. While Tom runs on about Fourierism, Audrey smiles sheepishly at a friend. She saves the letters a girlfriend of Tom's discarded. When Tom neglects her, Audrey cries on Christmas Eve.

Their courtship is as commonplace as yours. Tom is nice to Audrey but ignores her feelings for him. He doesn't ask her to dance and she doesn't push it. When Tom's girlfriend resurfaces, he ignores Audrey outright. Quick looks, talks about books, and the comfort of shared company inform their day-to-day.

When Tom insists he won't be attending any more deb parties on principle, Nick confronts him in the entryway to Sally Fowler's apartment. ?I'll tell you this in confidence,? he says. ?I'm not sure if you realize this, but these girls are at a very vulnerable point in their lives? For many of them, this is the first serious social life they've had, and if you just disappear now, they're going to take that as personal rejection.?

That is Stillman's quiet revolution. We are easily hurt when we are young, easily in love and out of it. Each gesture or insensitive word is worthwhile. ?Life is melodramatic,? Audrey says. ?Few people's lives match their own expectations.? But that is an attitude children cop and most cannot possibly believe; theirs is the realm of expectations. So Audrey keeps hoping for Tom. They talk about Jane Austen, whom Tom hasn't read. Eventually he reads her.

Such small moments, too: Audrey drinking a glass of water for her complexion, Tom arranging snapshots on his nightstand, Audrey feeling her newly waxed legs. When Tom abandons Audrey to talk to his old lover at a dance, a friend suggests Tom's slight is unforgivable. ?You saw how he treated Audrey last night,? the boy tells Nick. But forgiveness is a quality of hope, which is youth. ?Audrey seems to have forgotten it,? Nick replies.

?Whether I've been humiliated or not is something I can judge for myself,? says Audrey. That need not be a socialite who says that. Nor is the lesson as mundane as Tom dancing in a conga line for the first time. When Audrey asks for exemption from a game of Truth, she's sensitive enough to suspect the inevitable unwanted revelation, and sufficiently self-conscious to think it may be hers.

It is, of course, and Audrey's hurt. Tom doesn't talk about the old toys his that his father abandons on a Manhattan sidewalk. Audrey doesn't tell Tom of the letters of his she keeps. Both fear the false step until they take it.

The movie's most beautiful moment is a wordless one. Nick says his goodbyes to the season and his friends, and walks dressed in tails down a platform to an upstate train. The light has the deep clarity of early morning. The long shot is lonely. But Stillman waits, as Nick waves slowly, his arm outstretched and a bag in his left hand. One is struck by the idea that this scene is already a memory, there to twist the knife a little should we look back too long.

The rest of the Sally Fowler Rat Pack disperses. Audrey is invited to the notorious Rick Von Sloneker's Southampton house with a friend. So begins the film's final sequence ? the measure of its young protagonists' fears in Tom's realization that he was wrong. Audrey was right: he needs her.

And Stillman is sincere enough to make it funny ? to not burden these kids with an adult's sense of the profound. What could Von Sloneker do to Audrey? What might she do for revenge on Tom for his rejection?

Tom panics. He wants to rent a car, but neither he nor his friend can drive. They call a third friend for a ride; he refuses. So a taxi is hailed and directions are given, Tom all the while imagining Audrey in the arms of the wrong man. When they arrive at the house in Southampton a pair of panties lies in the yard. They knock and then enter, and there Audrey sits on the floor with a book, in a sweater and a dress and a smile for the boys.

It is not the discovery Tom expected. But Tom has at last changed his mind, and the relief in his expression restores to us those long nights and afternoons of our teenage anticipations, for good or bad. The high stakes of small resolutions. So Tom asks Audrey about a visit that semester. They head home.

In a small way, the taxi ride to Southampton is a slow dissolve from the details that make Metropolitan a New York movie ? that make it like The Last Days of Disco or anything else ? condemned to damnation for its snobs. Whit Stillman might disagree, but Metropolitan isn't about Lionel Trilling or Mansfield Park or even Manhattan at all. Instead it is simply He and She, the song of a man and woman, young enough to see mistakes and failures differently.


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