Revisit Whit Stillman’s ‘Metropolitan’

Stillman’s work is not for everyone.

Whit Stillman’s “Metropolitan,” one of the seminal independent films of the past 30 years and a New York movie through-and-through, gets a 25th anniversary revival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center beginning Friday.

The 1990 film, inspired by the works of Jane Austen, looks at the social lives of the Upper East Side’s disaffected “urban haute bourgeois” over the course of a winter break.

It’s an ensemble piece that sounds like an early version of “Gossip Girl” but is in fact a sympathetic portrait of young men and women facing the inescapable fact that the yuppie culture that bred them has reached a crisis point.

Today, the New York depicted in the movie is barely recognizable. It’s a document of a time and place characterized by a sort of old-world, aristocratic bent that simply no longer exists. That’s both in terms of the Upper East Side today and in the sense that the characters get together each night for high-minded discussions about culture and philosophy, harkening back to an era when people actually communicated face-to-face on social occasions.

Stillman earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, plus multiple other awards, and deservedly so: There are few films that value character development and intelligent conversation over strict plot development, and even fewer that so openly and enthusiastically embrace erudition.

The picture was an unexpected financial success and allowed Stillman to have an easier time making the two others in a loosely connected trilogy: “Barcelona” (1994) and “The Last Days of Disco” (1998). After that, there were years of difficulty and false starts before his return to filmmaking in “Damsels in Distress” (2011). He has since made an Amazon.com pilot (“The Cosmopolitans”) and there’s more under way.

Stillman’s work is not for everyone, but the re-release of “Metropolitan” reminds us how lucky we are that he’s got more of his unique perspective to share.

 

“Metropolitan” opens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center Thursday with Q&As all weekend,  prices vary, 144 W. 65th St., filmlinc.org

Robert Levin