A bird's-eye view of the Brooklyn bridge opened John Badham's Saturday Night Fever in 1977, when disco was in full swing. It was the route the working-class hero took to travel from where he lived and worked to the disco in Manhattan where he danced and partied. Then the titles appeared, over the now famous shots of his feet as he swaggered down the street.
Whit Stillman's The Last Days of Disco also begins with a shot of walking feet. They belong to Chloë Sevigny and Kate Beckinsale, as young Manhattanites of the early '80s, on their way to a disco. A block away from the door, they decide to take a cab the remaining distance, to make a proper entrance.
This sly, urbane, wittily engrossing film might be called the anti-Saturday Night Fever. It's a period piece, set not in disco's heyday but in its twilight; the perspective is from the opposite end of the (white) social strata, and the tone is one of quiet, reflective comedy rather than melodrama.
Sevigny and Beckinsale play Alice and Charlotte, Hampshire grads who work together at a large book-publishing firm. The latter is a passive-aggressive pill with a gift for casual nastiness she's only half aware of; the former is serious-minded, principled, critical and a little sick of it--she takes it to heart when Charlotte tells her she's got a "librarian" image. Even though they're far from convinced that they like one another, they decide to become roommates, with a third girl, in a railroad apartment that makes privacy just about impossible. Enter, needless to say, the men.
They include Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), an ad man whose career depends on his ability to get clients into the disco; his friend Des (Chris Eigeman), a womanizing "club flunky" who helps Jimmy accomplish this; Josh (Matt Keeslar), a rookie New York D.A. with a manic-depressive history; and Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), a well-heeled lawyer who collects Scrooge McDuck comics, and whom Alice picks to help her prove to herself that she's no librarian. These four are pals from dear old Harvard; joining the circle later is Dan (Matt Ross), a flunky at the publishing firm who claims great disdain for Alice and Charlotte's social privilege but who doesn't hesitate to show up when he's invited to their parties.
At first glance, it's hard to imagine many filmmakers less suited to the subject of disco than Stillman, whose previous films are Metropolitan and Barcelona. He's the chronicler--and gentle, sympathetic mocker--of the social class dubbed, by one of his characters, the UHB ("urban haute-bourgeoisie"): endearingly clueless young New York blue bloods who socialize by spewing epigrammatic pomposities at each other. His characters are ridiculous, but they're also genteel, tasteful, anxious, sweetly thin-skinned. The gaudiness, trendiness and overt lechery we associate with disco seem far from their world, and so does the festivity.
Maybe that's why Last Days turned out so fresh and cliche-free and subtly funny, and why it feels curiously true to life--somebody's life, anyway--even though pretty much every aspect of it is stylized. Even in its declining years, disco was probably never like this. The few times that I visited discos during the film's period--"the very early '80s--spring," a title dryly informs us--I was put off by conditions exactly opposite to those Stillman depicts. I remember discos as noisy and crowded. Communication, beyond shouted drink orders, was very difficult; real conversation was impossible. There was such a press of human bodies, it usually was hard even to dance.
Yet in the unnamed club that Stillman's characters frequent, people wander huge, elegant hallways and sprawl at spacious booths, all the while spouting philosophical dissertations in low, blandly academic tones. Disco hits thump away in the background, always at the perfect volume: just loud enough to dance to, never so loud as to interfere with the symposia. If there'd been a disco like this, I might have been a regular, too.
But an idealized disco is just the right setting for a film that idealizes disco--not in the usual way, by presenting a level of kinetic energy and sensuality exaggerated from real experience, but in the Stillman way--by presenting disco as an important social phenomenon. This is the deeply whacked thesis of the movie: that disco was more than just a passing fashion, that it represented a shift in how people partied, from "mixing" with the purpose of meeting a partner, to group activity for its own sake. Yet this idea doesn't hold up, and Stillman knows it. He acknowledges that all socializing ultimately tends to reduce itself down to pairs.
Josh speaks of his admiration for the concept of disco--of places where young people could gather to socialize--as if he were testifying to a religious conviction. In the next breath, he's admitting that he very rarely goes to discos personally. Charlotte insists that "it's important to start socializing in groups, instead of all this savage pairing off." She, unsurprisingly, wastes the least time pairing off--the more decisively she asserts something, the more likely she is to contradict it by her actions.
The movie is a comedy of manners, but it's also an elegy. That title isn't for nothing. It's about the end of an era, and here Stillman's insistently theological side (remember the guy in Barcelona who read the Bible while dancing to Glenn Miller?) shows itself. The once-pure disco world has grown wicked--Des snorts coke; his boss hides cash from the IRS in the basement; people sleep around against their better judgment--so the Wrath of God is come upon them. Well, "Wrath" is maybe too strong a word for Stillman's milieu; it's more like the Weary, Disappointed Pique of God is come upon them. But they are being cast out of Eden and visited with plagues all the same.
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.
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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.