The Last Days Of Disco Review
Whit Stillman’s debut film Metropolitan confused many viewers, who couldn’t see the relevance or the humour of a group of wealthy young preppy New York intellectuals attending debutante social gatherings and after-parties, worrying endlessly in a long series of conversations about the uncertainty of their future. Despite the social status of the characters and anachronism of the milieu of coming-out parties of the New York elite, there was nevertheless a more universal dimension to the film, of young people trying to find their place in a world where the formerly rigid rules of social behaviour were changing, leaving them uncertain about their futures.
Stillman finds just such a similar situation in his third film (and to date his last one) The Last Days of Disco (1998), although it is one where viewers will be more familiar with the character types, the rules of dating etiquette and the social behaviour and expectations placed on the characters. Set at the start of the 1980’s, the film follows the fortunes of two young girls, Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) and Alice (Chloë Sevigny), both of them working as assistant editors in a New York publishing company. Supplemented by rich parents, they nevertheless want to find their own apartment and fit into the lively New York social scene, which revolves around an exclusive discotheque. Far from being the liberating scene it was ideally supposed to be, the disco is the new form of social elitism, where those that pass the stringent checks of the doormen feel part of a privileged few. The people Charlotte and Alice tend to meet there are consequently many of the familiar faces they knew from their college days, and their behaviour is restricted by living up to past reputations and dealing with former crushes and rivalries.
The real rivalry turns out to be not over the young advertising executive Jimmy Steinway (Mackenzie Astin) – who is fortunate enough to be admitted to the club because he knows one of the managers, Des (Chris Eigeman) - but between the girls themselves over which is the most successful method of getting on in the world, succeeding in the workplace and having the most men flocking around them. Charlotte is jealous of the ease with which Alice can effortlessly attract attention of the young men that make up their circle. Unaware of these charms and lacking confidence in herself, Alice follows the advice of Charlotte who seems to know all the right things to say and do, but her first conquest with Tom (Robert Sean Leonard) gets her into a lot of trouble.
The select group that gather around the girls are consequently rather like the self-styled UHB’s (Urban Haute-Bourgeoisie) of Stillman’s Metropolitan. Having left college, they are now seeking to find their place in the world, assistant DA’s, advertising executives, corporate lawyers, nightclub managers, and book publishers, the world is theirs for the taking. And it’s an exciting world at the height of the disco explosion, a world of unlimited prospects, fuelled by drugs and new open sexual experiences. The characters however – just like those in Metropolitan - feel lost in this new world, struggling to keep up with the demands placed on them by their yuppie social status, the need for professional success, understanding the rules of accepted social behaviour and being accepted by those around them. With drugs, depression and STDs rampant, having fun seems to be more difficult than it really ought to be.
Stillman’s strengths have never been in the conventional plot department, the sudden crises that come at the conclusions of Metropolitan, Barcelona and here in The Last Days of Disco seeming like an afterthought or a need to give the storyline some semblance of a plot. They are however the least important aspects of these films, which thrive rather on the quality of the writing and the characterisation. The Last Days of Disco is particularly brilliant in this respect, abounding in the director’s trademark fast-talking witty intellectual conversations, even surpassing Metropolitan here with the amount of one-liners and the social complications. It’s delightful to see some of those characters from Stillman’s debut film and from Barcelona make cameo appearances here, but they also serve to illustrate just how far the director has refined his work, the non-professional actors giving way to an exceptionally talented and extremely handsome looking cast of promising young professionals. Moreover, the precipitated downfall of the whole disco era, more than the conclusions to previous Stillman films, is thematically integral to the whole social model being examined in microcosm here. Stillman’s writing here is so good and so acute in its observations, that he can reduce the whole scenario into a hilarious discussion between the characters analysing the social implications of Disney’s The Lady And The Tramp, and in the process reveal their own hopes, expectations and prospects.
The Last Days of Disco has been out of print on DVD in the US for quite a while now – commanding extremely high prices on eBay – and has never been available on DVD in the UK. This budget edition is released in France by Warner Bros. as Les Derniers Jours du Disco and, barring a few translated captions, it is almost entirely friendly for English language viewing. The DVD is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2. The disc can be purchased via the Amazon.fr link on the left for about €8, which works out at about £5.
A budget DVD release, the French edition of The Last Days of Disco, is not completely at the standard you might hope for, but it’s not bad either. It’s presented in the correct aspect ratio of 1.85:1, but is letterboxed without anamorphic enhancement. Contrast is high, which means that blacks, while deep enough are rather flat and show no great shadow detail. Colours also look slightly washed out with a greenish tint and skin tones look a little pinkish, but filmed for a large part under the artificial lights of a discotheque, this is not so noticeable and the film retains its essential colourful quality. The image remains clear and sharp throughout, with no flaws in the image in the way of marks or scratches and no digital artefacts of any kind.
The original English audio track is presented as Dolby Digital 2.0 and it ought to be in stereo, but to my ears it sounds like a mono mix. On a film like this, bursting at the seams with some of the greatest songs of the disco era – Chic, Sister Sledge, Blondie and the O’Jays – you would notice the lack of stereo separation. In spite of this the tone is fine, allowing the music to come across forcefully and dialogue to be clearly followed. Being a Whit Stillman film, dialogue makes up a significant portion of the soundtrack, and without full separation you do need to listen carefully to catch all the terrific lines of the script. There is a little bit of analogue hiss and some low but high-pitched background noise in a few scenes. A French dub is also included on this edition.
Only French subtitles are provided for the film, but they are optional. There are a couple of captions that are in French only – the opening title placing the time of the film as the early 1980’s and an occasional title, announcing ‘Spring’ for example. One or two signs or notices are also translated in fixed titles on the screen. The majority of the film however can be watched entirely in the original English with no fixed subtitles.
There are no extra features on this DVD edition.
With The Last Days of Disco in 1998 Whit Stillman completed his trilogy of films that include Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994) and he sadly hasn’t been heard of in the film industry since. There are a lot of connections between the films in the trilogy beyond the mere cameos that occur here. The situations in each of the films seem to be related to distinct historical periods that appear to be no longer relevant in modern society – the 1970’s debutante social-life of wealthy Manhattan-ites in Metropolitan, the Spanish anti-NATO, anti-American feeling of the early 80’s in Barcelona and the period of yuppies in the disco era of The Last Days of Disco. Each of the films however capture the quality of young Americans, full of prospects, believing the world is theirs for the taking, only to find the era crashing down around them, leaving them lost, confused and directionless. There is nothing irrelevant or dated about such an outlook, and perhaps American filmmaking needs Whit Stillman now more than ever. The French bargain edition of the film is rather basic and has a few minor issues, but for around €8, this is a bargain for such a brilliant film, particularly considering the excessive prices being asked for the OOP US edition. It will certainly suffice until someone gives this film the Criterion DVD treatment it richly deserves.