The Last Days of Disco (1998)

Dir. Whit Stillman. Starring Chloe Sevigny, Chris Eigeman, Kate Beckinsale

No one with a name seems able to have fun in The Last Days of Disco, and no one is keen to expose him- or herself as a genuine human being. Obviously, this is a tricky line to walk in a discotheque, perhaps to the point of being self-defeating. Disco is many things, but first and foremost it is meant to be a good time, an unironic and sparkly oasis in an unforgiving setting. The Last Days of Disco is concurrent with another New York movie which I think of as being really essential to the filmic history of the Big Apple: Fame. The New York of Fame is seedy and tough; think of that scene where Gene Anthony Ray goes off into this dark, wet landfill of a demolished city block to try to read a Maytag ad. Somewhere not so far away, Alice and Charlotte (Sevigny and Beckinsale) are grabbing a cab to improve their chances of getting into a club. They are as insecure about getting into a Studio 54-style disco as Leroy is about being functionally illiterate. Someone makes a joke later on in the film about the two of them getting help from their dads for their rental, but neither one is bashful about it. To Charlotte, it’s a statement not of how awkward it is for a pair of would-be adults to be holding Daddy’s hand, but an insight into the expensive world of Manhattan apartments.

There are plenty of people in the club who appear to be having a great time, but we don’t know anything about them. Conversely, the more we know about people, the more likely it is that they are just miserable. There’s some dancing and drinking and a few half-smiles, but it’s hard to look at Alice or Charlotte or Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin) or Tom (Robert Sean Leonard) and see people who are having a good time. Des (Eigeman) needs Quaaludes as much as anyone else in the ’80s ever did, although he could probably manage his anxiety better by making humane choices about women. (He does his best to get out of clingy relationships by pretending he’s had a revelation of his own homosexuality. It is marginally effective.) Alice and Tom dance together to “Knock on Wood,” which is a jam, and neither one of them seems so excited. Alice smiles and Tom half-smiles, but those are as controlled and practiced as their whitefolks dance moves. There’s too much cattiness from Charlotte, too much anxiety from Jimmy and Alice, too much awkwardness from Josh (Matt Keeslar). The most famous conversation in the movie is probably the surprisingly intense discussion of whether or not the Tramp of Lady and the Tramp is a junkyard freeloader who will never change his ways or a sympathetic fellow who works to improve himself. That should be a lighthearted conversation, but there’s too much of the characters in it; Josh and Des are talking about themselves and they aren’t being shy about it. In a Whit Stillman movie, the ability to wink at oneself is as rare as the ability to shed one’s skin like a snake, and it’s neither of those are skills which the regulars at the club are able to indulge in. Being serious at a disco is a sin, and most of these people can’t even sin in a way that they could laugh about the morning after. The Last Days of Disco is a grim comedy, the okapi of movie genres, and while it’s a long way from funereal, it is often just as morbid as its title implies. Josh gives an impassioned eulogy for disco, which is very him; he’s also the guy whose manic depression shows itself through religious expressions. Earlier on he quoted the lyrics to a hymn at rapidfire speed, a recitation which only served to prove to Alice that something was wrong with him. Josh is allergic to irony or embarrassment, so he is the man who can say things like “[Disco] will always live in our minds and hearts.” It’s like the end of Uncle Vanya if it had been about a dance craze instead of deep existential disappointment.

It’s hard to assign “main character” status in Last Days, but it feels like it should belong to Alice and Charlotte, college acquaintances who are now work acquaintances and roommates. Charlotte is white like snow, frequently made up with pinky cheeks or lips; if Charlotte is snow white, then Alice is dun. At college, Alice didn’t have much of a social life because, as it turns out, Charlotte went behind her back and sabotaged her. There’s something about Alice which inspires that sort of reaction, though; Charlotte is not the only one who sees Alice as insufferably hoity-toity and judgmental. (The movie doesn’t show us the worst of Charlotte’s nasty excesses, nor does it show Alice firing off any seriously ugly remarks. It’s much more likely that Charlotte is the bitch she aspires to be than it is Alice is some kind of ’80s Dudley Do-Right, but it is certainly interesting ) The relationship they have with one another is passionless dislike masquerading as polite friendship. Alice resents Charlotte’s bossiness and her need to have her own way even what passes for high-stakes in their trust fund lives. “Railroad apartment” has the same kind of ubiquity in Last Days as “UHB” in Metropolitan, and it’s an appropriate summary of how Charlotte browbeats Alice in terms of real estate. Charlotte, although she never says as much (and it’s not clear Alice understands it herself), resents Alice’s success with men, which is easy and unpretentious. Charlotte’s idea of a turn-on for guys is to drop “sexy” into conversation; Alice’s implementation of “sexy” is followed with the words “Scrooge McDuck.”

The movie gives us a fittingly weird happy ending, more satisfying than warming. Alice manages to pick up the clap as well as herpes from Tom (who, unbelievably, chews her out over the course of that conversation), but at the end of the movie is just about the only named character who is neither collecting unemployment nor en route to trial. She’s gotten a promotion at her publishing house after its merger with a larger firm, which claimed Charlotte’s job and sent her to the unemployment office; she’s treating Josh to a lunch at Lutece; in the film’s final scene, they walk onto the subway together. She’s wearing a bright red dress which is utterly unlike any other piece of clothing anyone else wears in the movie. Even the clown costume Des has for reasons that are never adequately brought out is black and white. Her red dress is liberating, all things considered, from the endlessly drab world she inhabits professionally and the depressingly glitzy one she plays in unconvincingly. Alice is like Audrey Rouget of Metropolitan. (How strange it is that Carolyn Farina and Taylor Nichols, both making cameos from other Stillman flicks as characters from other Stillman flicks, look much older, but Chris Eigeman looks absolutely the same as he did in Metropolitan and Barcelona.) Like Audrey, who is a serious reader who isn’t cowed by the uninformed opinions of talkative men, Alice holds to her guns about what she’s reading. For both women, it pays off; Audrey is a bigwig at Farrar, Strauss and Alice, of course, gets the promotion that saves her from the unemployment line. Both of them also are more virtuous than their peers, male or female, in a setting where virtue feels like a put-on and talk about it is significantly more interesting to the people involved. More than anything, neither one of them ends up needing anyone else’s help despite the strong belief from their group of erstwhile pals that they need to be rescued from some awful fate. Watching Alice dance with Josh on the subway is a teasing indicator that she was better off than the rest of that bunch all along.

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