On March 16, Whit Stillman’s debut comedy, Metropolitan, left the Netflix streaming library. Such changes are routine—doubtless, Metropolitan will return. Still, I mourned its departure, and I wasn’t the only one.
Metropolitan, on paper, is not an especially lovable movie. “When I think about it,” wrote a friend as he recommended the movie to me, “this Metropolitan movie is sort of awful in most respects.” And it is. It’s awkward, often at odds with itself, and pretentious. It’s a comedy, but a major subplot is about date rape. It’s a character-driven film, but half the cast is forgettable. It’s all about the dialogue, but the dialogue is incredibly artificial. Some of the actors can’t really act.
All true—and yet. Set in an indeterminate past, Metropolitan dresses its characters in clothes that belong to no particular time. The scenes revolve around debutante balls, a tradition that is already a curiosity to the characters attending them. Thus Metropolitan has an “anywhere, anytime” feeling that softens and justifies its flaws. They lend the movie an unreal feeling, but Metropolitan doesn’t take place in the real world—not even for its characters.
The premise of Metropolitan is simple: a group of friends forms during the New York debutante season. They host endless after-parties, where they argue about politics, social issues, and art. One of them, Tom Townsend, is a social outsider who objects to these events on principle (he’s a socialist). But he is dragged in by a sense of fellowship, and also by the winning affection of the movie’s heroine, Audrey Rouget, a dedicated reader of novels who finds Tom ridiculous but charming. (He’s also interested in these parties because his ex-girlfriend often happens to be at them.)
The rest of the main cast is filled out by Charlie, a tedious moralist and prophet of doom; and Nick, a fatalistic social critic who constantly spouts contrarian opinions and who nurses intense grudges—in particular, against Rick von Sloneker, sleazy aristocrat and (as it turns out) date rapist.
The date rape subplot in Metropolitan is impossible to ignore, and yet so unlike the rest of the movie that it’s also almost impossible to discuss. At a party, Nick tells the story of a girl von Sloneker targeted, got drunk, raped, and abandoned. The girl killed herself. This story is initially presented as true, then as a lie. In the end, it’s revealed to be true after all: von Sloneker admits it. But by then, Audrey has already accepted an invitation to go to von Sloneker’s… and so Tom and Charlie, worried for her safety, set off to find her.
Why does a movie best remembered for its light conversations about Jane Austen and Charles Fourier contain a subplot so unpleasant? This is not an easy question to answer. But dark as it is, this plotline raises Metropolitan above being merely charming but pointless intellectual wordplay. All those conversations about society and all those balls are there to prepare the group for moral conflict.
“When you’re an egoist,” says a furious Charlie to Tom, who accidentally abandoned Audrey (who’s in love with him) at an event to chase his ex-girlfriend, “none of the harm you do is intentional.” Charlie, hilariously, holds this minor offense against Tom for the rest of the movie. But Charlie’s also not wrong. Tom has to accept responsibility for Audrey’s feelings, which he repeatedly injures. He doesn’t need to return them, but he needs to understand how deeply he can hurt her. His ignorance of those feelings is his egoism.
Tom, who only conceives of social obligation in an abstract sense, doesn’t understand Charlie’s accusation at first. He does later when he encounters von Sloneker, who also seems oblivious to the harm he does to others. Von Sloneker views the incident with the girl as entirely private; he accepts no responsibility for her suicide. That he might have done something wrong is incomprehensible to him.
It’s only after this ugly manifestation of egoism that Tom finally sees and accepts his own obligation to Audrey, which he does in a big way: following her to von Sloneker’s home to make sure she’s safe. Because if something happens to Audrey, Tom realizes, it will be—at least in part—his fault.
But what about the rest of the group? Except for Charlie, they opt not to judge, even after von Sloneker admits the story is true. They too believe this is a story that has nothing to do with them. And they would prefer to reject Nick for bringing this conflict to the surface than confront von Sloneker for doing something terrible. They’re unable to admit what Tom and Charlie understand: that part of being a society means accepting responsibility for others.
After this crisis, the group dissolves. The rejected Nick disappears upstate; the rest turn to their own individual interests. For after failing so badly to rise to the occasion, what kind of a society could they be?
Like the Austen novels it loves, Metropolitan understands that our social niceties are what allow us to habituate ourselves to virtue—or to vice. It might seem ridiculous to label someone a bastard for accidentally hurting another person’s feelings, as Charlie does. But etiquette is about putting another person’s needs before your own and understanding your social obligations. Because these needs and obligations are codified, there’s no excuse for not knowing them.
Most of the characters in Metropolitan who reject artificial social customs end up being either predators or their enablers. They talk a good talk, but they have no real moral core or philosophy behind their actions. Instead, it’s the pedantic Charlie—by far the most unbearable character at the start—who turns out to be the moral core of the movie.
Metropolitan may not be streaming on Netflix anymore, but it’s worth ordering it from their mail service or renting it via Amazon. Like its characters, it’s weird, clumsy, and frequently awkward. But also like its characters—or at least like the best of them—Metropolitan is possessed of a great deal of heart and courage to match. And as they stumble through the strange rituals that define their debutante ball world, they have something to teach us about the rules of our own.