I have discovered a new cinematic character worth quoting and his name is Nick Smith. Ever since Criterion decided to release a couple Whit Stillman films, I was intrigued to find out exactly what made them ‘worthy’ of the slightly slanted ‘C’ seal of approval. The artwork alone piqued my interest with its hand drawn aristocratic aesthetic, but it was the mystery of having never really heard the name before that truly drew me in. Next thing I knew, his debut Metropolitan was available for viewing in HD, so I took the plunge and am glad I did. I’ll admit to being a bit cautious when the credits began with the word ‘introducing’—I did not think the film would be populated by first-time actors—however, as soon as Chris Eigeman’s Nick Smith appeared, begging to share a cab with Edward Clements’ Tom Townsend so as to forgo any ill will, I knew I’d be in good hands. You see, the acting doesn’t really play a huge role in the film at all—not that it is bad, these are spoiled rich kids, so the stilted performances work because they were all trying to be proper and fit in the debutante life. What resonates and lingers is the magnificent and memorable script. Equal parts intelligent and witty, I was enraptured by every word these pompous preppies, I mean UHBs, uttered.
Here is a generation of college kids at the end of the 80s, drifting through Christmas vacation from dance party to after party, showing that all you need is a suit coat, a black tie, a white tie, and a cursory knowledge of what it means to be intelligent, (not necessarily being intelligent yourself), in order to survive the boredom and loneliness of upper class life. Or do the parties and late night debates themselves epitomize tiresome boredom? One of the best exchanges in the film comes towards the end when Sally Fowler, the unofficial hostess of this clique tells Tom that they can’t get together with the same people every night for the rest of their lives. In response, Tom dejectedly replies, “I wish you would have told me this before I joined in”. These people only exist in so much as they accept each other. You don’t even have to like your fellow attendees, as long as you can wax poetic with them, about them, or despite them. In the end, it all really comes down to numbers. There must be enough male escorts for female members, and of course a multiple of four to play bridge. Who fills the quota is inconsequential … even, God forbid, a West Side resident low on cash can join the fun.
But, is this class of America’s youth doomed for failure? Through all the blow-hard conversations and political debate, one topic crops up over and over again—do kids raised in the upper class have a destiny to never succeed? And if so, what is the definition of failure? As Taylor Nichols’ Charlie Black relays, if something ceases to be, it has thus failed. This is countered by Tom’s point of view on the fact that everything ceases to be at some point, it doesn’t mean everything is a failure. Maybe things just go out of favor despite their success, who knows? One can’t help but feel a little helpless, though, when looking into a mirror aged ten years or so, listening to your future at the bar in the guise of man full of regret. He tells the boys that the true acid test of success is whether you take pleasure in the question, “What do you do?” He for one can’t bear it, despite a good paycheck and standard of living. Was he doomed to that fact because of his background though? He doesn’t think so; after all, some people he went to school with became well known success stories. Charlie’s cynical answer to that, “They must not have been true UHBs; there must have been another factor involved”.
Every one of these kids is completely wrapped up in their own social standing. They hate ‘titled’ aristocrats, but not ‘untitled’ ones, (how can you despise yourself after all?); their egos are so bloated that it becomes arrogant to worry about the less fortunate, (because you then in turn show that you are fortunate); and even reading literature is above most when you can stick to literary criticism and learn whether it’s good or bad despite its own merits, (“You don’t need to read a book to have an opinion on it”). This world is so vain, so vapid, that I wish I could visit it and just bask in the absurdity of it all. What Stillman does is allow us in as flies on the wall, hearing the words come out of their mouths so we can smirk and shake our heads at the seriousness they say it all in. They are all parentless in the fact that the adults are all out at their own parties, (does anyone actually work for a living?), and have bottomless bank accounts. Some revel in the lifestyle because it suits them and they feel entitled, (Jane, Sally, Charlie), some loathe it but find themselves drawn in to the feeling of acceptance, (Tom, Audrey), and others see the nonsense to it all but can’t help love the spectacle, (Nick). Everything Nick says is pure gold, (I love his ‘composite’ story); he knows his world is insane, he knows why his lifestyle is meaningless, but he loves the journey too much to stop himself.
Something is to be said also about the candor and realism displayed by Clements and Carolyn Farina’s, (Audrey Rouget), relationship. She loves him; he loves another while enjoying the interaction with her. Everything is so matter-of-fact and thought to be obvious, but it never is. Feelings get hurt, feelings evolve, but the pain of brutal honesty never goes away. One thing about this group of people is that they have no fear in telling others what they feel, because who wouldn’t want to know the truth? Audrey knows how much explicit honesty can hurt, she has something we lower middle class like to call morals and conscience, things the entitled bourgeoisie seem to think is just unnecessary clutter. This world is so fascinating to visit, but one that I don’t think I’d ever want to live within. Sure, the group includes people that I can match to friends of mine—every class system has their versions of these kids—but until you see it all from the outside, you don’t realize it. Stillman puts a mirror up for us to see our own shortcomings through his characters, while also giving an enjoyable look into unearned affluence.