Sunday, January 13, 2013

Movie Review: Metropolitan

Directed by Whit Stillman. 1990.

How easily one can miss the beginning of Metropolitan. Not the first scene, mind you, but the beginning at the credits. Before we meet anyone or see anything at all, we hear with no repeats or emphasis the chorale tune Ein Feste Burg Ist Unser Gott. It's a warm and hopeful but lonely little theme here, undeveloped and unaccompanied, and it's followed up by this jaunty, jazzy tune. The contrast and the transition, or lack thereof, mirror those of Metropolitan's main character, Tom Townsend.

Tom's been an outsider to the Upper Haute Bourgeoisie world since his parents divorced, but one night during the debutante ball season he takes up an invitation to a party. Redheaded, thin, and quiet, he doesn't last long before getting singled out from the chatty and well-fed upper crusters for some questions. It turns out Tom is a bright young man. Exceedingly so, in fact. He's articulate about his radical political ideas and literary tastes, adding to the party's facile chatter with his thoughts on Veblen and Austen, and he's a hit with everyone, if a bit of a sphinx.

The curtain is pulled back on Tom for us in the next scene at his home, a far cry from the capacious, opulent apartment at which he just partied, where in his mismatched skivvies he pours some coffee  with his cereal. He doesn't fit in with his newfound friends and partiers, for sure, but more importantly he doesn't want to. We grow to learn that Tom's more comfortable looking in than living with, but he has to keep going to the deb parties now because the ladies, especially Audrey, are counting on him as an escort. So with a loan from his mother he gets himself a secondhand tux and suits up for the balls.

As her official escort Tom naturally gets to know Audrey and their conversations throw the two into  sharp relief. She answers from the heart, he from the head. She empathizes with Austen's heroines, he thinks they're inauthentic. Tom in fact is taken aback by her empathy for the character and we don't know what to make of his surprise until he admits he hasn't read the book. He prefers criticism to novels, he says. Again, Tom prefers thinking to feeling, looking in over sharing with. Shortly after their conversation, Audrey, fishing for some feedback on Tom, is happy to learn from her friend that he mentioned her. He said she was well-read. Not witty or kind or pretty, or even silly, but well-read, as if he had no opinion of her character at all but only of what she knew. This conversation is mirrored later on when Audrey admits she likes Tom, but in explaining why she describes what he thinks, not who he is.

What is it exactly, then, that keeps bringing Tom and Audrey together? His sociological interest in the goings on of the, "Rat Pack," some sense of duty to escort Audrey, or his obsessive interest in an old flame who frequents the group? As his motive shifts through all three we learn that Audrey has had a crush of her own since college: Tom. Yet Audrey and her escort seem to be drifting apart as Tom reconnects with the college infatuation who inexplicably cut him off. In a moment all the more gutting for its simplicity and subtlety Audrey walks past a bookstore before Christmas and in the window glimpses a set of Jane Austen novels.

Yet Tom can't seem to rekindle his romance with Serena. The deal-breaker falls when Serena admits she didn't save their correspondence. Tom is completely galled by her indifference to having thrown away his letters, clearly feeling that he himself was thrown away. Not quite thrown away, Serena explains, because some girl wanted them: Audrey. What Tom gave away in love Serena tossed aside with indifference and Audrey collected in secret and distant longing.

At last we see in full the many symmetries between Tom and Audrey. Like their taste in books, her evasion of reality is essentially imaginative whereas Tom's is analytical. Audrey prefers the idealized fictions of the author whereas Tom prefers clarifying criticism. She ignores Tom's coldness and imagines feelings for her whereas Tom ignores Serena's coldness and tries to understand why she broke off communication. Her obsession with Tom is positive whereas his with Serena is negative.

Yet there are cracks in Tom's facade. Austen has replaced Spengler on his night table and in a passing moment he wonders whether his idol Fourier wasn't full of it. The guy's ideas didn't work, after all. Tom's learning that his own studied persona of studying others, his radical politics, overall his analytical distance, isn't so satisfying as being with Audrey.

Metropolitan ends with a buddy sojourn in which Tom and the last remaining member of the Rat Pack, now dissolved in the post debs remainder of their lives, journey out to the Hamptons to rescue Audrey from rivalrous rake Rick Von Sloneker. This is handled with good humor and affection for the characters, but one notices as much the absence of the supporting cast. Gone is the pretender, the actor, the leader, the hostess. There's no more bitchy chatter about who's who or endless commentary on the nature of society. There are three friends. Especially for Tom and Audrey, in discovering each other they've discovered themselves and now, debutante balls aside, they really are ready to step out onto life's stage, together.

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