on the greatest Christmas movie of all time
reflections on Whit Stillman's Metropolitan (1990)
It’s orgy week. That’s according to Whit Stillman’s 1990 film Metropolitan, which gives the name to the period between Christmas and New Year’s Day — especially for the intellectually voracious, emotionally vulnerable New York debutantes of the film. Both coming-of-age story and end-of-an-era elegy, Metropolitan is, perhaps, my favorite Christmas movie. In fact, we’ve made a tradition of watching it on the first Sunday of Advent to usher the season in.
It’s not just that Metropolitan beautifully captures New York at Christmastime — although it does. There are the shots of Fifth Avenue, of afterparties at the Plaza, of chilly nights on Park Avenue, of Midnight Mass at St. Thomas Church. But the way in which Metropolitan functions as a Christmas movie — indeed, a great Christmas movie — doesn’t rest on the aesthetics of Christmas. Rather, it’s in the ebullient goodwill with which it treats its characters, a goodwill all the more striking because its main characters are the sorts of people it would be so easy to deride. The “Sally Fowler Rat Pack,” the prep school debutante set with whom our protagonist, Princeton freshman Tom Townsend (Edward Clements) — living in post-divorce exile and comparative penury on the Upper West Side — finds himself entangled, are wealthy, privileged, and a little bit useless. (“Doomed, bourgeois, in love,” as one of the early promotional materials for the film put it). They spend their nights at deb balls and at one another’s homes — particularly the palatial living room of Sally Fowler herself.
They have ambitious ideas about God, about politics, about socialism, about the future of the “urban haute-bourgeoisie” (UHB) to which they belong, and also a profound lack of emotional maturity and life experience. They ponder the existence of original sin (indeed, the film opens with a debate over the existence of God), but they’re also foolish enough to think that playing truth or dare in a room full of people who have all dated, or want to date, one another is a good way to spend a Saturday night. They are, in other words, incredibly easy targets.
The premise of Metropolitan — middle-class kid gets seduced by a gang of rich, idle, intellectually-pretentious teenagers — could so easily lend itself to a story of disillusionment, one that frames friendship as the first step in a narrative of corruption. (Compare The Great Gatsby or The Secret History.) At best, these narratives function as criticisms (often apt) of a particular, powerful social class; at worst, they become an exercise in fetishism, inviting viewers to experience vicariously the twofold excesses of wealth and cruelty. Hot rich kids behaving badly is a genre all its own; just think of Gossip Girl and Pretty Little Lies.
But what makes Metropolitan such a great movie — and such a great Christmas movie in particular — is that it refuses to fall into this trap. Rather than fetishizing its characters, it treats them with authentic love.
Nearly everybody in the movie is deeply-flawed; nearly everybody in the movie is ultimately well-meaning. The Sally Fowler Rat Pack welcomes Tom with exuberant eagerness, unbothered by his middle-class status. Rather than treating him as an interloper, they see him as a necessarily ally in their project of defending the mores and values of the increasingly irrelevant (they believe) UHB, someone whom they can induct into their outlandish rituals and outdated discourse before the inevitable collapse of the “set” when Christmas break comes to an end.
Nearly all of the characters in Metropolitan are motivated, in some way or another, by love of one another. The wryly cynical Nick (Chris Eigemann, in a role that could very easily have been imagined as cartoon villain) champions Tom’s induction not only because the Rat Pack is in danger of dying out without fresh blood, but also because he’s looking out for his friend Audrey (Carolina Farina), a shy Austen-reading debutante who has taken a shine to Tom.
Even when our characters are causing conflict, their motives are, if not always entirely pure, nevertheless bound up in their protectiveness of the little makeshift family they’ve created. The neurotic intellectual Charlie is hostile to Tom at first — but only because he likes Audrey himself. When, towards the end of the movie, he (erroneously) believes Audrey to be in peril, he teams up with Tom to try to save her. Jane (Allison Parisi) and Cynthia (Isabel Gillies) strong-arm our characters into the aforementioned disastrous game of truth or dare, but only to suss out the intentions of Tom, whom they rightly suspect of being too wrapped up in his faithless ex-girlfriend Serena (Ellia Thompson). And even Serena herself — belatedly conscious of the consequences of her own selfishness — gets something like redemption in her final scene: she at last confesses to Tom that she barely read the impassioned love-letters he used to write her, pointing him instead in the direction of her classmate Audrey, who devoured every line, and helping Tom realize in turn how poorly he has treated the girl who actually loves him.
Ultimately, Metropolitan is less about the “urban haute bourgeoisie,” as a distinct phenomenon, than it is about the magic of finding a bunch of weirdos that you belong with — and fighting to hold onto that, even on the precipice of an adulthood that threatens to sunder you all apart. It’s about the intimacy that comes with being young and in love with the whole world, about being smart enough to know that nothing lasts forever, and foolish enough to think it just might if you try hard enough.
The world that the Sally Fowler Rat Pack have created for themselves, and for one another, is as fragile as it is magical: a world that’s far more about late-night conversation about whether or not Mansfield Park’s Fanny Price is a prig for refusing to participate in an “immoral” play than it is about the brand of tuxedo Tom Townsend ends up encouraged to buy. It’s a world where Audrey cares — in a genuine and unpretentious way — about virtue as a construct (her defense of Fanny Price prefigures her failed attempt to stop the characters’ truth or dare debacle), but also a world in which her moral seriousness, far from cleaving her from her somewhat more licentious friends, renders her a beloved influence on them. By the film’s end, Tom and Charlie are so worried that Tom’s callous behavior has caused Audrey to doubt her principles that they dash to the Hamptons to “save” her from the predations an amoral playboy, only to discover, naturally, that Audrey was never in danger to begin with (she was too busy reading Charles Fourier, no doubt since Tom has avowed himself to be a Fourierist).
The people I know who love Metropolitan — and who identify most strongly with its characters — are not necessarily people who have attended deb balls, or lived on the Upper East Side. Rather, they’re the ex-theatre kids and choir alums, the Latin nerds and the LiveJournal diarists, people for whom Metropolitan is not a story about wealth, or class, or the decline of the American social system. Rather, at its best, Metropolitan is a film about love: about the love we have for our friends, about the love we have for ideas, about how we’re always trying to hold onto those sacred “orgy weeks,” between the ordinary time that leads us into adulthood, where our lives feel a little richer by virtue of the communities we have created together. This Christmas, I was glad for the reminder.