Strictly Mirrored-Ball Room

Witty Last Days of Disco calls it a night

Okay, fine, you may ask, but who, except for a few pop-culture historians, really cares why disco became popular, or why it faded? Well, Stillman cares, and that's about it. You may find yourself caring a little, too, if you tune in to his esoteric wavelength. But not everyone does; plenty of audience members defected from the screening I saw. The performances are certainly of a piece with the script. The actors give the complex lines a sober urgency--you'd think they were talking about the shift from agrarian to industrial culture rather than the winding-down of a dance craze. This, of course, is precisely the guiding joke of the film.

As he was in both Metropolitan and Barcelona, the funniest actor in the film is black-haired Chris Eigeman as Des. With his wide, wounded eyes and his aggrieved tone, he seems perpetually sure that he's just been insulted, and he's always ready to explain to you how much he resents it. Beckinsale is excellent as the maddening Charlotte, and with her flat accent, you'd never guess she was a Brit. Sevigny, of Kids and Trees Lounge, swallows some of her lines, but there's a gravity to her Alice that's lovely--she serves as Stillman's unsteady moral center.

Stillman has built his whole career--this newest film links itself with Metropolitan and Barcelona into a loose trilogy--on the comedy of unsteady moral centers, of moral self-consciousness. His characters are constantly basing their behavior, or at least their beliefs, on some abstract moral idea that appeals to them at the moment.

In Metropolitan the hero felt it necessary to express his disdain for the snooty East Side parties he kept compulsively attending. In Barcelona the hero had the notion that plain women were more "soulful" than the beauties he kept falling for. In Last Days, we keep hearing about the excitement of disco from people who would seem stuffy in a Victorian parlor. And maybe that isn't so wide of the mark. Disco fell into disrepute, after all, largely because its devotees were seen, fairly or not, as phony poseurs obsessed with appearances--in short, as desperately self-conscious.

Still, it comes as a surprise--a delightful surprise--that Stillman chooses to end The Last Days of Disco with a burst of purple didacticism in the dialogue, and a fanciful visual flight. After three movies' worth of rigorous comic formality, Stillman decides to give frivolity a try. Because it's such a self-conscious try, it works charmingly.

The Last Days of Disco
Directed by Whit Stillman; with Chloë Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Chris Eigeman, Matt Keeslar, Mackenzie Astin, Robert Sean Leonard, Matthew Ross, Jaid Barrymore, David Thorton, Jennifer Beals and Tara Subkoff.


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