Whit Stillman’s directorial debut follows the lives of a group of young Manhattan socialites over the 2 week Christmas holiday period as they attend debutante balls and discuss the nature of their upper class existence.
A cast of relative unknowns creates an intriguing ensemble, and allows the audience to appreciate the conversation and invest in the original screenplay, nominated for an Academy Award. The script is peppered with brilliant one-liners, including ‘I can’t stand snobbery or snobbish attitudes of any kind’ from Sally, played by Dylan Hundley, a perfectly ironic quote coming from a rich girl in a ball gown. The group of ‘Manhattanites’ spend much of their time discussing anecdotes about people they don’t know, and debating possible activities with the seriousness of a government cabinet. Stillman’s script is subtly witty throughout, and gently mocks the ‘First World Problems’ of the New York elite. A particularly funny moment occurs when they attempt to rebrand themselves as UHB : ‘Urban Haute Bourgeoisie’ as they feel ‘preppy’ does not do them justice.
Tom Townsend, (Edward Clements) is the chance new addition to the group, who happened to befriend the lovely Audrey (Carolyn Farina) at a ball he attended on a whim. Despite his relative poverty (his father left his money with most of their fortune), Tom is one of the most ‘snobbish’ characters, telling Audrey ‘I prefer literary criticism’ when she enquires as to whether he has read Jane Austen.
The female characters are all excellently affected, and wear some utterly ridiculous meringue-like dresses throughout the film, which adds comedy to their overly serious conversations. The girls’ rooms are also fantastically over the top, with Audrey’s pink bedroom and Sally’s minimalist lounge contrasting the simplicity of Tom’s mothers down town apartment.
Despite his pretension and conceit, Nick, played by Chris Eigeman is the most genuine and honest character, taking Tom under his wing when he realises their social differences, and helping him to settle into the group. The only other sympathetic characters are Charlie, (Taylor Nichols), a shy and virginal philosopher, and Audrey, whose crush on Tom completes the love triangle.
The film ends with the triangular ambivalence of Tom, Charlie and Audrey walking home from Long Island, and we are left to wonder if the ‘UHB’ will ever have to experience real life, and how they will continue to exist in such a bubble. Although the characters are mostly caricatures and underdeveloped, this reflects the image that Stillman is trying to create: a class of dull, standardised snobs, which I enjoyed as it drew comparisons with this type of social circle throughout history (the references to Austen are especially effective).
Brilliantly shot in grainy, low budget style, Stillman expertly invites us to observe the trivial lives of these college kids and manages to create some great comic moments out of their vacuous conversations.