Wednesday, Feb 15 2006

A wickedly droll portrait of a doomed social class navel-gazing while awaiting its own extinction, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990) has itself become an emblem of a cultural moment long since faded away. Making its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 1990, the year after sex, lies and videotape “changed everything,” Stillman’s debut feature still evinces the unassuming charm that has been all but rendered impossible in contemporary American independent film. You can even see it in the film’s titles — despite their graphic similarity to Woody Allen’s serif signature — where Stillman’s credit for writing, producing and directing the film shares screen space with those of cinematographer John Thomas and editor Christopher Tellefsen. Call him the reluctant auteur. Set during Christmas vacation at the height of Manhattan’s debutante season “not so long ago,” Metropolitan unfolds largely as a series of after-party vignettes where a self-styled rat pack of 20-something socialites self-consciously ponder the emptiness of the rituals and conventions that govern their lives, while dutifully following through with them anyway. What, from the sound of it, might have been an hour and a half in hell is instead a sharp, bemused satire that pokes fun at its subjects, all the better to draw out the affecting, humanizing fears and anxieties that keep them isolated in their gilded cages. The film’s all-newcomer cast, headed by Christopher Eigeman and Taylor Nichols, follows the lead of Stillman’s Academy Award–nominated screenplay, taking us to some unexpectedly touching territory. And the passage of time has only added a sense of poignancy. It is not hard to imagine these creatures, or ones like them, still moving through the same old routines. As the film says, “not so long ago.” This Criterion edition of the DVD includes commentary tracks with Stillman, Eigeman and Nichols as well as outtakes.

—Paul Malcolm

Other recommended new releases: La Bête Humaine (DVD), The World (DVD).

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