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For years now watching Metropolitan (1990) at Christmas time has been a sort of tradition for me. It isn’t explicitly a Christmas movie but because it’s set during that time of year the look of the film, all of those beautiful New York City locations, evokes a lot of feelings and nostalgia. Metropolitan wasn’t the first Whit Stillman film I ever saw nor is it my favorite; Metropolitan just feels like Christmas to me.

Metropolitan was Whit Stillman’s debut film as a writer and director and already his unique style feels fully matured. Stillman writes dialogue out of some nineteenth century novel and creates characters of comic extremes that either over react or underplay emotionally. Metropolitan, like all of Stillman’s films, is about navigating social situations and coming to terms with changes that occur both internally and externally. In many ways Stillman’s films are just like the character Audrey Rouget (Carolyn Farina) in the sense that they are both shaped by their experiences with literature and Jane Austen in particular.

Superficially Metropolitan is Tom Townsend’s (Edward Clements) coming of age story. While this motivates the narrative Stillman is equally busy with creating a distinct portrait of one of New York’s most elite social cliques. The works of Edith Wharton and Evelyn Waugh informed the modus operandi of Metropolitan as significantly as Jane Austen influenced the romantic narrative between Tom and Audrey. Metropolitan is the first of three semi-autobiographical films that Stillman made in the nineties and each one looks at a chapter in late twentieth century culture with the eyes of the late nineteenth century.

This creates a number of relatable episodes for the characters in the film even though the execution of these scenarios is rendered plastic or strictly performative by Stillman’s novelistic screenwriting. In Metropolitan the love triangle hits all of the same beats as any late-eighties indie comedy it’s just that Stillman’s style keeps the action at a distance. Removed from the drama Stillman invites the audience to observe the characters from the same comfortable distance that one would watch an Ernst Lubitsch comedy.

Hal Hartley’s output that is contemporaneous to Stillman’s early work shares many of the same aesthetics, particularly with regards to dialogue. But where Hartley allows the internal life of his characters an external catharsis or expression, Stillman will remain steadfastly internalized and withdrawn as if feelings were something to discuss rather than express. Even when Stillman’s characters do express themselves it is with great difficulty and almost no reward at all.

As would become usual in Stillman’s early films, the character played by the great Chris Eigeman is the exception who has no qualms about externalizing his emotions as actions. Eigeman can play a character who is as despicable as he is charming like few others. Eigeman is so good in Metropolitan that Stillman cast him as one of the leads in his next two films.

Maybe the reason that Metropolitan works so well as a Christmas movie is that all of the main characters are so likable. Not every actor steals a scene the way Eigeman does, but they each get their moment to shine and they all have good chemistry. When one watches Metropolitan one is joining a circle of friends, only briefly, for some low stakes adolescent hijinks.