Fairy tale of New York

UHBs rejoice: Metropolitan is finally enshrined on DVD

BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER Eigeman, left, hits the card table with his Sally Fowler Rat Pack cronies in Metropolitan.

BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER Eigeman, left, hits the card table with his Sally Fowler Rat Pack cronies in Metropolitan.

Whit Stillman’s martini-dry comedy Metropolitan takes place “not so long ago,” as an opening title card puts it, but the film now seems more like a period piece than it did when released in 1990. “I was trying to make it seem as far back as possible, but we couldn’t change things too much,” says the director of the low-budget chronicle of high society, speaking from his home in Paris. “But we got a lot of things that soon after vanished—there’s no longer a bookstore where the old Scribner’s was, and B. Altman is gone.”

Metropolitan’s evocation of the past extends beyond physical landmarks: Set during the holidays in an unspecified year (Stillman says 1971 “isn’t a bad guess”), the film follows a group of young Upper East Side blue bloods as they navigate a gauntlet of pre-Christmas society dances at the Plaza Hotel. Most of the action unfolds in late-night afterparties where the protagonists have endless liquor-fueled, navel-gazing debates that showcase Stillman’s remarkable ear for dialogue. Previously available only in a low-quality VHS edition, the film is now available in a blue-chip DVD from the Criterion Collection that treats this understated gem with the respect it richly deserves.

“It’s a film about what could be the least sympathetic group in the United States and makes them incredibly sympathetic,” says Chris Eigeman, who played the tart-tongued Nick Smith, the most memorable of the film’s UHBs (“Urban Haute Bourgeoisie,” an acronym one character coins as a more sociologically accurate alternative to preppie). Eigeman went on to star in Stillman’s Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998), but as the new DVD reveals, he was nearly passed over for Metropolitan. The disc includes a scene in which Nick is played by the 6'5" Will Kempe, who was shifted over to the role of the nominal villain, sneering aristocrat Rick Von Slonecker, in part because of how he towered over the other principals. “I thought Chris was a really impressive guy and a great actor, but I didn’t think he could do comedy,” Stillman recalls. “It shows how misguided and misled you can be.”

Although Metropolitan received a warm reception at Sundance in 1990, it didn’t acquire a distributor until its New York debut at MoMA’s New Directors/New Films festival a few months later. The film struggled at the box office until New York Times critic Vincent Canby put it on his year-end top-ten list, which attracted enough attention for the film to set a new house record at the Angelika Film Center. “There’s a barrier that’s hard to break through if you don’t play the populist card,” Stillmansays when asked if contempt for the upper classes posed obstacles. “The film wasn’t an unambiguous attack on snobbishness, and I think that makes people uncomfortable. Worse than uncomfortable—it makes them angry.”

Somewhat ironically for a film with such a rarefied backdrop, Metropolitan was shot for a pittance in borrowed apartments and locations that were used on the sly. “I recommend that the first time someone acts in movies, they do it for a movie made for about a dollar fifty on the streets of New York City, because you learn really fast,” Eigeman says. “We’d be shooting scenes on Park Avenue or in front of the Plaza, and people would come up and try to sell us watches, and we’d be like, 'We can’t; we’re actually in a movie right now.’”

For the original VHS release, Stillman reluctantly reconvened the cast to shoot a deceptively racy box cover designed to attract more attention on video shelves. It was really trashy,” Stillman says, “But my friends in the industry congratulated me on opening it up for the market.” To his great relief, the new DVD’s jacket features an illustration by veteran New Yorker cover artist Pierre Le Tan that is far more representative, suggesting that the passage of time has finally made Metropolitan’s sophistication a selling point rather than a liability.

Metropolitan is available now from the Criterion Collection for $39.95.