Action and violence lie at the (bloody) heart of American cinema. Rambo, and Hannibal Lecter define its essence and, for that matter, its limits. An art form obsessed with exploding cars and pulsing muscles has little time for the depiction of the mundane exchanges that make up life.
It was precisely for breaking these constraints that Whit Stillman’s 1990 film Metropolitan was widely hailed. By depicting little other than the the conversations of its characters, it seemed to reject not only the usual visual orgy, but any idea of plot. The natural comparison seemed to be to the more plotless films of French New-Wave directors like Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette.
Metropolitan, though, is a consummately American film. Far from eschewing violence, it is obsessed with the damage that can be done by words, especially those spoken by those we love. The few scenes of physical action that the film contains–one punch and one brief appearance of a pistol–look comically innocuous next to the much more vicious exchange of insults. Future attempts to understand violence on the screen should devote a little less attention to the likes of Mel Gibson and a little more to Stillman’s films.