Midway through Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan, Charlie, the wannabe philosopher of the SFRP (“Sally Fowler Rat Pack”), the film’s central group of characters, expresses great disappointment over discovering that Luis Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is a surrealist critique of his social class and not, in fact, a celebration of its “discreet charm.”
Yet Charlie is perhaps too quick to complain, as sitting at the table with him is Metropolitan’s protagonist, Tom Townsend, who in the last few days has, despite himself, found the bourgeoisie quite charming. Despite his pretensions to radical thought — on his first night with the group, Tom grabs their attention by distinguishing himself as a Fourierist rather than a Marxist — Tom falls in with the SFRP easily, even as he remains an object of curiosity and even distrust for some of them.
The film makes clear that Tom is not of the same strata as the SFRP (or, to use the term Charlie later coins, he’s not a member of the UHP, the “Urban Haute Bourgeoisie”). He does share some of their traits: he’s a well-educated WASP, and so not entirely outside their world of white privilege (the film is called Metropolitan, not Cosmopolitan, after all). Yet he always walks or takes public transportation, and Nick Smith, the de facto leader of the gang, unironically accuses him of being “one of those public transportation snobs.” Attention is drawn more than once to Tom’s thin coat in the winter cold, to which he continually protests that “it has a lining,” and its tan color makes him stand apart visually as the group walks down Manhattan streets.
Sally Fowler’s apartment (perhaps I should say, her parent’s apartment, though they are never seen) is overdecorated in the way that only the homes of the wealthy are: upholstered furniture fills the rooms, massive flower arrangements and objets d’art clutter the space, huge windows and curtains mark one wall while molding and wood paneling adorn the others. Soft lamp light lends a warm, yellow glow to the spaces.
Meanwhile, the apartment that Tom shares with his mother is cramped, with largely functional furniture and crisp, bright white walls — the sure sign of a rental property in New York City. Shots of Tom in the apartment will crowd him in the space, enclosing him between the two walls on either side of the frame. This is an inconceivable notion in the capacious homes of the SFRP, where Stillman often frames the entire gang at the beginning of each night in a tableau of fancy dress, and even there we struggle to see the opposite ends of the room.
So despite his difference from the bourgeoisie of the SFRP, where does Tom find their “discreet charm?” Although he doesn’t realize it at first, he primarily finds it in sweet and bookish Audrey. The early part of the film consists of a series of debutante ball afterparties during the holidays, which Stillman distills to a series of short scenes. There is always at least one such moment at these parties where Tom and Audrey are alone together. In an early interaction, Audrey reveals that one of her favorite novels is Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. Tom criticizes it, relying on literary critic Lionel Trilling to authorize his opinion. Audrey doesn’t put much stock in Trilling’s opinion, or Tom’s. Tom later admits he hasn’t even read Mansfield Park, or anything else by Austen, and that he prefers to read literary criticism, as that way he “gets both the ideas of the author and the critic.” He reveals himself as too eager to appear learned and intellectual, while Audrey is confident in her opinions, regardless of what Lionel Trilling might think. It’s a sign of their mutual respect (and burgeoning love) that Audrey later reads Trilling and Tom, Austen; Audrey’s opinion remains unchanged, while Tom finds himself enjoying the novel.
Audrey, of course, has her own anxieties, unrelated to Tom’s class and intellectual insecurities. Being suddenly thrust into the highly patriarchal debutante society, she worries about propriety and her appearance, as the first scene makes clear: she hurls herself onto her bed in tears, upset about how she might look in the dress she has for the ball that night. At one of the later afterparties, she doesn’t want to take part in the “drop the dime” truth-telling game or a game of strip poker. She frets continually over Tom’s on-again, off-again relationship with Serena, a girl outside the group. Like the protagonists of the Austen novels she loves, she’s smart and well-read, but not yet worldly.
None of them are. The members of the SFRP are playacting as adults, proclaiming intellectual positions and identities and a degree of experience they don’t have but can pretend to because of their class. For Tom, whose identity has been shattered — his parents are recently divorced, the trust fund he thought he would have is gone — finding a group of friends who appear sophisticated, but at heart are just as anxious as he is, must be a relief. Nick, for all his ease in upper-class snobbery, is viciously jealous of aristocrat Rick von Slonecker, who functions as a boogeyman of privilege in the film. Both Nick and Charlie are obsessed with the idea that their class is in decline, and Charlie especially believes they are all “doomed to fail.” His pretensions are undone late in the film, when he and Tom encounter a middle-aged man at a bar who tells them they’re not so much doomed as likely to be mediocre. Charlie is romanticizing his fate.
(Yet Audrey reminds us that “life is melodramatic, when you look at the whole sweep of it.”)
So here is the “discreet charm” that Tom finds — these young people of privilege are, for the most part, just like him. They want their ideas to be taken seriously, aren’t quite sure yet what it means to be in love, and their posturing disguises a series of deep anxieties. They haven’t yet hardened into the class enemies of a Fourierist.
The final lesson he learns in his bildungsroman is just how tenuous social connections can be. In the last third of the film, the SFRP disintegrates, with the girls in the group maturing and moving on, leaving Tom and Charlie to worry about Audrey’s trip with Cynthia to von Slonecker’s house in Southampton, a person and site around which all of their fears about sex and class circulate (early in the film, Charlie says the stereotype of “decadent behavior” among “New York social types” is “more Southampton”). After an agonizing failure to rent a car to mount a rescue, the pair are forced to hire a taxi and, humiliatingly, don’t actually have enough for the fare. But they “save” Audrey, who is bemused by their efforts, and the boys discover that their fears about Audrey were wholly unwarranted. Of course she wanted nothing to do with von Slonecker. She’s far too smart for that.
The film ends with the trio — Tom, Audrey, and Charlie — walking along the side of the road in Southampton, trying to hitch a ride home. There is the suggestion that of the SFRP, these three will remain close friends. They are still young, still naïve, and the frame freezes with them having grown somewhat — and if nothing else, about to grow a bit more, as they still need to figure out a way back to Manhattan.