November 9, 2009

The Last Days of Disco

Reviewer: Amy Monaghan
Rating (out of 5): ****½

It is, a title archly informs us, “the very early '80s” - “September,” to be exact - but the strobelight flicker of the opening credits and the thumping beat make it clear that we are in The Last Days of Disco (1998). In the final film of director Whit Stillman's informal trilogy (after Metropolitan and Barcelona), recent Hampshire grads Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) and Alice (Chloe Sevigny, escaping from Harmony Korine films) spend their days trying to discover the best seller that will elevate them from editorial assistants to associate editors at a midtown Manhattan publishing house.

History, however, is made at night. That's when they go to the club (never named) - if, that is, they can make past imperious doorman Von (director Burr Steers, years before Igby Goes Down). This disco is not meant to be Studio 54 exactly - Bianca Jagger never shows up on horseback, although two-time Spy magazine Ironman Nightlife Triathalon winner and social gadfly Anthony Haden Guest lurks in some shots, while Drew Barrymore's mother Jaid, as nightlife fixture the "Tiger Lady," slinks across others. But the film provides a backdrop for after-dark commingling of the sort that saw Fab Five Freddy heading downtown to collaborate with Blondie.

There's a plot concerning financial double-dealing and tax evasion that echoes Studio 54's eventual demise, but it hardly matters. Disco is all about the lingering looks, the misunderstandings and regrettable hookups, the indignities of sharing a railroad apartment, and the importance, as Charlotte puts it, of “group social life” that is so often the backbone of those first post-college years in a big city. She should know. Charlotte undermines Alice constantly as they dance and flirt with young lawyers, ad men, and Des, the club's manager, played by Stillman stand-in Chris Eigeman.

Stillman has so much affection for these striving, evolving characters that it's hard not to fall a little in love with each of them, at least as long as the music's playing. In fact, affection informs all three of his films, as evidenced by appearances here by Audrey Rouget from Metropolitan (Carolyn Farina), now a successful editor, and Ted Boynton from Barcelona (Taylor Nichols), just in town on business.

And what music. For reasons of thrift as much as taste, the soundtrack digs deep. Classics by Vicki Sue Robinson, Alicia Bridges, and Evelyn “Champagne King” segue effortlessly into Chic, Diana Ross, and Blondie as Alice and Charlotte dance the night away. Outside the club, scenes like that at Rex's (actually the Old Town Bar) are undergirded by Jamaican tracks by the Techniques.

Criterion showers extras on its viewers like confetti falling from the ceiling as day breaks outside, in this long-overdue hi-def digital transfer. Each one serves to expand Whit Stillman's finely drawn universe. In addition to a behind-the-scenes featurette, a stills gallery, and the original theatrical theatrical trailer, the commentary track, featuring director Stillman and actors Chris Eigeman and (a frequently cackling) Chloe Sevigny, is illuminating and dishy. Four deleted scenes reveal elements of a dropped subplot, while an audio recording of Stillman reading a chapter from his novel "The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards" has one character, Jimmy, letting us know what happened after the closing credits. If only Stillman would give us “More, more, more,” too, but until he makes another film, we'll always have Disco.

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Posted by cphillips at November 9, 2009 2:43 PM
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