In early anticipation of Metropolitan's anniversary celebration, I showed the film at one of ISI's week-long conferences this summer. Whit Stillman is known for his dialogue-driven comedies on bourgeois life, manners, and the nostalgia that comes with the passing of an era, so I was surprised by its diffident reception. Here I was, in a room filled with philosophically-minded college students, all wearing bow ties or pearls, watching a film about college students discussing philosophy and wearing similar attire, and my fellow conference attendees were unmoved.
Not only is the Oscar-nominated Metropolitan witty and charming, its themes remain relevant for us now, particularly if you're a young conservative pursuing the moral imagination, virtue, and truth.
So, please allow me to adjust your tie.
Metropolitan follows young Tom Townsend's (Edward Clements) foray into the social elite of Upper East Side society. He falls in with a group of college freshman known as the “Sally Fowler Rat Pack” (SFRP), where he gets a glimpse of the part of society he claims is “morally objectionable.” Tom is not of their class, but the SFRPs recognize that they need him in order to maintain important customs like games of bridge, so Tom is welcomed eagerly into the group.
There is a palpable anxiety about fin de siècle America underneath the “Rat Pack's” conversations about theology, agrarianism, and the reality of a “popular imagination” (all of which are strikingly similar to topics discussed late into the night at ISI conferences). The characters fear they are witnessing the last debutante season of its kind, and that the new social mobility will negatively affect their social standing. Now, you may be tempted to dismiss these elites for whining about the demise of their own privilege, but it doesn't take much digging to realize they are actually lamenting the ebb of tradition. Previous generations have squandered it, the current generation dismisses it, and they wonder whether they will be able to save it. As Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman), the insufferable charmer, tells Tom, “so many things which were better in the past have been abandoned for supposed convenience,” when things like detachable collars (or, in our case, the required ISI conference attire) are actually “symbolically important.”
These ideas about tradition and the importance of detachable collars are lost on Tom—until he meets the taffeta-clad Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina).
Audrey consistently rejects the mores of “enlightened” modernity. Instead she promotes goodness and virtue, neither of which are found in the socialists or the debutantes. While members of the SFRP indulge in strip poker, drugs, and boldly proclaim their sexual exploits, Audrey abstains. She defends Jane Austen's Mansfield Park and its virtuous heroine, Fanny Price, much to the amazement of Tom, who knows only what literary critic Lionel Trilling has written about Austen.
“[Trilling] says that nobody could like the heroine of Mansfield Park,” Audrey tells Tom. “I like her! Then he goes on and on about how we modern people of today with our modern attitudes bitterly resent Mansfield Park because its heroine is virtuous...what's wrong with a novel having a virtuous heroine?” Tom responds that Fanny Price “sounds pretty unbearable,” but, then again, he hasn't actually read the book. He lacks moral imagination. Eventually he is able to see that the naiveté he criticizes in Austen (and, by extension, Audrey) is actually virtue. Later in the film Tom reads Persuasion—and likes it!
When Audrey appears to be in danger of being seduced by the infamous womanizer Rick von Sloneker, Tom and Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols), the boy with the Oxford-stutter, decide they must save her. It proves to be a rather quixotic act of chivalry. Neither of them have drivers licenses, so they must hire a cab, which promptly deserts them. The rescue is poorly executed, and probably unnecessary, but Audrey appreciates it nonetheless. She abandons von Sloneker to hitchhike her way back to the city with Tom and Charlie.
It's quite the shift, considering that Tom would have scorned Audrey's love of Austen and antiquated virtues only weeks before.
Despite Tom's constant failings toward Audrey through out the film, his reluctance to dance with her, his pitiful attempts at being her escort, and his flirtation with the manipulative Serena, her character and her love for the timeless evoke his truly conservative instincts.
The themes in Metropolitan extend well beyond the detachable collars. Anyone who believes in the value of tradition should appreciate the film's unabashed nostalgia, formal costuming, and witty dialogue. I hope ISI students will give it a second chance, and I hope that those who love it already will watch it again. Being millennials, we can only hope that Audrey's idea of tradition (attending midnight Mass) rather than Tom's (sitting alone in his room with a televised yule log) will win out in the end.