The Last Days of Disco (1998)

D: Whit Stillman
S: Chlöe Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale, Chris Eigeman

In the early 1980s, a group of friends and acquaintances contemplate life, love and profit as society shifts from discos and promiscuity to yuppies and AIDS. Most of the action revolves around an exclusive night club at which a variety of underhand dealings threaten to destroy friendships and transform the disco scene itself beyond recognition.

In truth this scenario is merely a thematic backdrop to another of Whit Stillman's witty, intelligent and verbose dollops of twentysomething period angst featuring extraordinarily self aware and literate characters whose conversations are densely loaded with psychological nuance and bitter humour. All the more bizarre then that for the most part all of this in-depth dialogue is lost in the sound mix. The atmosphere of the disco and its accompanying soundtrack-selling music tends to render most of what is going on unintelligible. Even given this may be the result of a lousy sound system or my own bad hearing, there's something incongruous about such highbrow conversation in a definitively vacuous setting. Indeed the film only comes alive once the central characters have been barred from their favourite haunt and begin to talk in more typical locations such as coffee bars and over breakfast tables. Of course then it becomes simply another bit of character exposition and the rest of the action and the plot seems tacked on and redundant.

It's a clash between form and content which Stillman is unable to overcome. Though it becomes more involving as it goes, the film is not especially interesting and the insight into character not as epoch-defining as it seems intended to be. In fact there's something uncomfortably anachronistic about it, with a variety of more 90s costumes and body styles attempting to ape the period in question and a peculiar selection of music which is neither evocative nor advances characterisation enough to justify its volume. Its characters are certainly a confused bunch, and Stillman seems to have hoped that some arguments about sexual morality, the onset of 'coupling' which is set to destroy the singles scene, discussions of the merits of advertising and marketing as social activities, and one man's uncertainty about his sexual identity give us a definite sense of the time and place which justifies the setting. It doesn't, and the whole thing seems like a bad idea which has gotten worse in execution. It is all too generic at the end of the day, and despite its evident intellectual superiority, it's ultimately less successful in tackling its subject than Boogie Nights, set over much the same time period (though it spanned more years) to much better effect.

Stillman fans will probably lap it up (if they can hear it), and to be fair it does evince his characteristic sparkle on the level of words and carefully worked character development (even if it doesn't surprise us in any way). It forms part of a loose trilogy with Metropolitan and Barcelona, and some of the characters from those films are featured here, which may be of special interest to some viewers. The performances are not bad, though again arguably too contemporary to be convincing, and there are moments of humour which shine through the noise and bustle (the discussion of the merits and demerits of Lady and the Tramp is hysterical). But Stillman is like a preacher on a street corner in heavy traffic. It's hard to hear him clearly and it might not be worth it anyway. A pity, but it may well find its niche with attentive audiences with good ears.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.