At the close of Barcelona, the second entry in Whit Stillman’s loose Urban Haute-Bourgeoisie trilogy, the lifelong friends played by Chris Eigeman and Taylor Nichols are basking in an idyllic Grand Lake summer with their Andalusian spouses chit-chatting beside them. It’s an odd moment in Stillman’s cinema: Not precisely gratuitous, given the events of that middle film, but there’s a sense of unrewardingly pat self-actualization that seems altogether too kind to the characters’ sheltered milieu. Even the denouement to Stillman’s bubbly debutante-laden debut Metropolitan was more appropriately bittersweet; the sub-adults had won the puppy love battle for that day, but the war’s outcome was anything but certain. Could those yuppies really have metamorphosed into mature adults that easily?
This may be why Stillman, possibly taking a cue from wildly successful contemporary Quentin Tarantino, sought his story’s finale in the chronological center. The Last Days of Disco imagines post-grads not unlike those of Metropolitan in their uncomfortable late 20s, stumbling over their parents’ ideals on the way to connubial compromises and modest career advances. A far cry from the complacent curtain call to Barcelona, Last Days is easily the most hard-knock of the Stillman triad, depicting the fate of social ineptitude and romantic uncertainty doomed to befall post-Harvard preppies after they first venture out of the mother’s bosom of Sever Hall. Despite the elegiac title, the film is more concerned with unceremonious cherry-popping premieres (both literal and figurative): The plot rhythmically orbits around a collection of former Ivy Leaguer pals who are desperately attempting to claw their way up the lower rungs of prestige vocations (law, advertising, publishing) while discovering that the self-sufficiency of university life has filed their nails down to blunt, inutile nubs. This sets the stage for a Darwinian game of survival of the wittiest, and Stillman divides the weak from the strong with sharp, snarky bon mots that, unlike the puerile put-downs of his previous two movies, smart like hell and destroy tenuous reputations while somehow keeping the audience chuckling. As Kate Beckinsale’s acidic female back-handedly confides to her “friend”: “Maybe in physical terms I’m a little cuter than you, but you should be much more popular than I am.”
Also unlike the wounded masculinity on display in Metropolitan and Barcelona, the focus of Last Days is a psychologically authentic and painfully parasitic female relationship. The pale, porcelain Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), a hot-shit rich girl who misses being the center of the male student body’s attention, vents her aggression by belittling and exposing the vulnerabilities of her fleshier, more modest flat-mate and co-worker Alice (Chloë Sevigny, before Vincent Gallo’s erupting phallus would disable her ability to play innocent believably). And rather than admiring disco on its own terms, the two view the dance scene—particularly the buoyant, popular club managed by the womanizing cad Des (Chris Eigeman, in the most entertaining manifestation of his typecast smart-aleck)—primarily as a way of exercising what sexual power they have upon the cold, impartial dating environment. Although judging from the men they mean to wrangle onto the dance floor or into bed, their pulchritude turns out to be more of a disadvantage: The nebbish adman Jimmy Steinway (Mackenzie Astin), forever attempting to sneak his crusty, quinquagenarian clients into the club, and the wishy-washy, broad-eye browed Tom (Robert Sean Leonard) are justifiably terrified of attractive women.
As a much younger man I saw trailers for the original theatrical run of Last Days and envisioned a somber relationship drama, probably due to a mix of jejune misunderstanding and egregious mis-marketing. Ironically, however, I noted when finally screening the film that it would have had plenty to offer a 14-year-old residing in a So Cal suburban wasteland; Alice even clumsily attempts to seduce one crush by claiming that his collection of Scrooge McDuck comics are “sexy,” an aside that devastatingly backfires later in the film (one of the trenchant quirks of the Stillman universe is that it possesses no throwaway lines; characters are perennially, brutally aware of everything that’s been said to or about them). In many ways this film, with the remainder of the UHB trilogy, was ahead of its time, possessing a playful wholesomeness unlike most other reminiscences of the ’80s, one that—in spite of a peaceful third-act cocaine bust at the club—Stillman and his cast maintain with the wide-eyed innocence of a social and sexual virgin stepping beneath the mirror ball for the first time. It’s telling that the only character who seems to take disco seriously—the borderline-Asperger’s Assistant DA Josh (Matt Keeslar)—not only must appreciate nightlife from a observatory distance, but he’s also been on Lithium ever since a compulsion for belting out hymns in crowded cafeterias surfaced in college. An awkwardly loveable loner, Josh loves to pontificate about disco’s significance but never once loses himself in the moment of a shimmy; that’s a privilege allowed only to the nameless, more experienced body-painted dancers that ornately groove about the club’s halls and stairwells.
What Stillman crafted by smarmily turning back the clock is not only a pithily coruscating Bildungsroman for the new millennium but a useful handbook of the soured generational relations that develop when the next round of young professionals are none too eager to yank the torch from Mom and Dad just yet. It’s somehow comforting to imagine that kids back then were just as uneasy and full of trepidation when it came to the inevitable “ferocious pairing off” that, as Des astutely notes, has more to do with biology than anything. Hell, despite the lack of cellphones and the Internet, these (fictional) kids were just like us: They dissect Bambi in highfalutin terms without the aid of marijuana and consistently bemoan their receiving the short end of the 20th-century culture stick (“You know the Woodstock generation of the 1960s that were so full of themselves and conceited?”). And if any concrete proof is needed of this gang’s kinship with Generation Y, look no further than the denouement, which takes place not in the lively, glittering goldfish bowl of the club but in the squint-inducing daylight outside an unemployment office. There’s a lesson here, fellow freelancers. Growing up doesn’t necessarily mean taking definitive charge of your life: It means being man or woman enough to sign your claim, grab the classifieds, and take it one interview at a time.
Neither Whit Stillman nor his contemporary Noah Baumbach ever received enough credit for their far more than functional visuals-but then, when your debut is a loose adaptation of a Jane Austen novel and you stuff scenes with enough rhetorical verbiage for critics to herald you as "the American Eric Rohmer," an Oscar for cinematography probably isn’t in your future. Now, however, that Criterion has lovingly rescued Last Days of Disco from VHS and out-of-print hell, we can more properly assess Stillman’s provocatively vibrant color schemes and surprisingly creative mise-en-scène (watch the way he resists the urge to swoop through his massive nightclub with unnecessary cranes and Steadicams, instead allowing us to soak in the scope of the space with cleverly timed and distanced angles). Shot by John Thomas, the cinematographer who accompanied Stillman throughout his decade-long triptych project, Last Days is a stunning hybrid of the muted red-rose-on-black-and-white soirees of Metropolitan and the sun-baked, Néstor Almendros-like villa interiors of Barcelona (for which Stanley Kubrick himself reportedly fell head over heels) with a slightly more ribald palette. Stillman and Thomas capture the mania of strobe lights and the depressive crash of morning-after coffee with intimate details and subtle washes, mixing the impressionistic dreaminess of remembering the heyday of disco and the much less astral reality of living through it. Although this film would have been an excellent candidate for Blu-ray, Criterion’s DVD looks great on any type of screen you choose; despite the standard definition master, the blacks are deep enough to be sexily intimidating. The soundtrack has also been given a clarity boost, serving the various disco and funk tracks quite well. You’ll be shocked at how emotionally resonant Sister Sledge and Carol Douglas are in this context.
The supplements contain more or less the standard Criterion fare (not that anyone’s complaining). There’s superfluous deleted scenes, some production stills, an audio chapter from the film’s novelization, and a quite silly promotional featurette from the time of the film’s release-none of which are necessary viewing/listening. The audio commentary with the director, Chloë Sevigny, and Chris Eigeman is by no means tedious, but Stillman’s tendency to relate general anecdotes rather than offer scene-by-scene analysis can become irritating (the trio’s chatter very seldom syncs up with what’s actually taking place on screen). Plus, listening to Stillman’s soft, erudite voice, one wonders how he was able to get into any disco clubs at all back in the day-making the film seem like bold wish-fulfillment in retrospect.
Criterion’s DVD will not only satisfy but validate the cult surrounding one of the best and most relevant films of the 1990s.