The Politics of ‘Metropolitan’: Whit Stillman’s Rare Insight Into the Anxieties of the Elite

Every subculture has its own particular anxieties, even if some of those preoccupations seem wholly trivial or entitled to the rest of us. As Donald Trump and his merry band of GOP backup singers are constantly reminding us, this is true even of Manhattan’s wealthiest, most conservative uptown elites. Call them preppies or WASPs or (as they christen themselves in Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan) the Urban Haute Bourgeoisie — that is, if you can resist calling them by far nastier names — but misunderstand what drives their behavior at your own peril.

Metropolitan, which premiered 25 years ago this week and begins an anniversary run at the Film Society of Lincoln Center tonight, provides a rare (semi-)sympathetic portrait of those upper-class anxieties as they manifest themselves in a group of young, untested Upper East Siders. Set “not so long ago,” as an opening title card preciously puts it, Stillman’s first film follows a clique of prep-school grads who come together during a college Christmas break — a time of year that was, and still is, debutante-ball season for the old-money families of Manhattan. Dubbed the Sally Fowler Rat Pack, in honor of the girl who hosts their endless afterparties at her family’s apartment, the ad-hoc group spends its short tenure together drinking, talking philosophy, and (discreetly) hooking up.

The movie is a love story in the same way that Woody Allen movies are love stories; the slowly building romance between bookish Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina) and less-wealthy sort-of-outsider Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) gives the story its shape, but Metropolitan is really about the neuroses of people so fortunate that even their worst days seem like a vacation to the rest of us.  And in that respect, its most fascinating characters are Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman) and Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols).

The de facto leader of the Rat Pack, Nick is conservative in the most literal sense — he embraces the rituals and traditions of his privileged clan to an extent that increasingly registers as creepy. He knows just where to get an appropriate suit for a formal occasion, and when he isn’t invited to an event he feels he belongs at, he just crashes it. At one point, he encounters a box of discarded toys on the sidewalk and launches into a rant about the disappearing artifacts of his childhood. And no one makes him angrier than Rick Von Sloneker, a louche, hulking baron with a decadent ponytail, whose status as a bona fide aristocrat appears to remind Nick that he isn’t quite at the top rung of the social ladder.

Charlie is the group’s philosopher, the guy who coins the term “Urban Haute Bourgeoisie” and a character defined by his fear of downward social mobility — a fear that is subtly confirmed by his UHB crush Audrey’s preference for middle-class Upper West Side utopian socialist Tom. As the story progresses, a UHB ten to 15 years the Rat Pack’s senior (who Charlie and Tom meet in a bar) serves as a case study for the idea that children of rich, powerful parents have been set up for failure. “It’s all so mediocre,” the older man tells them of his life since college. Sure,  he has a decent job and plenty of money, but as he explains, “the acid test is whether you take any pleasure in responding to the question, ‘What do you do?'”

For people like the SFRP, success isn’t surviving and paying the bills; it’s becoming the kind of person whose triumphs are splashed across the front page of the New York Times. Everything else feels like failure, especially when there are people with fewer advantages whose upward social mobility seems to be propelling them past you.

Stillman would probably tell you that he did not intend for Metropolitan to be a political statement. Even if he had, it’s no straightforward celebration of the UHB; though he apparently still identifies with some of these characters, the script constantly underlines their ignorance and naivety. But his commitment to treating rich teenagers like complicated people, and making them substantially more introspective and articulate than most of their real-life counterparts, yielded valuable insights into the psychology of a world that is rarely depicted with even a little bit of compassion. You don’t have to empathize with or even respect Nick’s or Charlie’s point of view (I certainly don’t), but understanding them will take you a long way towards understanding rich conservatives’ siege mentality. And in that sense, there’s no better time than the weekend after 2015’s first Republican debate to revisit Metropolitan.