Last year, Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress came to town — and had quite a little impact of the more polarizing kind. People either loved it or hated it. Walk-outs were not uncommon, and I was on the receiving end of some pretty stern mail for having recommended the film. It also ended up in the No. 7 slot on my Ten Best list, and the No. 5 slot on Justin Souther’s list. In all honesty, I don’t personally know anyone who didn’t love it — which may say more about the people I know than the film. Anyway, Damsels was my introduction to Stillman’s slender filmography (he’s only made four movies in more than 20 years), and set me on the path to see the others. So here’s Stillman’s first film — the largely autobiographical Metropolitan (1990) — and it’s clearly the work of the same sensibility that created Damsels in Distress. It’s also a film that calls to mind the days when low-budget indies were being made by people with a basic understanding of filmmaking and lighting (or the intelligence to hire people who were). You won’t find any poorly-lit lazy compositions or shaky-cam stuff here.
What you will find is a delightfully dry comedy — with deeply felt undercurrents of sadness — about a group of upscale young people striking poses, talking a lot of faux intellectual (but well-spoken) nonsense, and trying to hold on to notions of sophistication and decorum that were dead or dying before they were even born. All end-of-an-era stories inherently contain elements of sadness that cling to the passing of an age, but Metropolitan ups the ante by being about these already out-of-time characters living an already past fantasy with a mix of phony bluster and a sense of doom. (As it turns out, even doom may be out of their reach, with mediocrity a more likely fate.) The Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) character is something of an interloper, since he’s already one of the “downwardly mobile,” whose life and fortunes have taken a turn for the worse with his parents’ divorce. (Tom is Stillman’s onscreen alter-ego, and many of the events — his father avoiding him, the loss of a trust fund, his childhood toys ending up thrown out in a box on the street in front of his father’s apartment building — are true to life.) The other characters are waiting their turns for some similar fate — or so they think. It’s bitterly funny, strangely moving and, finally, a little bit uplifting. But only a little bit.
The Asheville Film Society will screen Metropolitan Tuesday, Feb. 19 at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.