The Last Days of Disco Review
The Last Days of Disco is set in New York in “the very early Eighties”. Whit Stillman’s film is an ensemble piece, but it centres on two young women, Alice (Chloe Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), both Ivy League graduates working in publishing and having to share an apartment due to the sky-high prices. They spend their weekend nights at an upscale nightclub (something like the real-life Club 54, which was itself the subject of a film, 54, of which more later). Other regulars include Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin) who gets admittance to the club because of his friendship with Des (Chris Eigeman), one of the managers. Des is a commitment-phobe who ducks out of relationships with women by claiming to be gay. The club is a place to be seen for these young people and for Charlotte and Alice that involves having the most male attention – something that the unconfident Alice seems to be able to have effortlessly, which provokes Charlotte's jealousy.
Whit Stillman was one of the more individual talents to emerge from the American independent film scene in the 1990s, and it’s a shame that The Last Days of Disco is his last (of three) feature films to date. (His only other directing credit is a 1996 episode of Homicide: Life on the Street.) To use terms I’ve employed before, he is a writer-who-directs rather than a writer-director. As a director, he’s certainly very competent, in a classical, not especially demonstrative, way. But the strength of his films lies in the writing. His films are undeniably talky, but it’s good talk: often comic and ironic, and character-revealing. This is a kind of cinema that harks back to people like Joseph L. Mankiewicz in the 1940s to the 1960s, and more recently European filmmakers like Eric Rohmer. (The latter is an influence on Stillman’s fellow countryman Richard Linklater too, especially in his pair of films Before Sunrise and Before Sunset.) His characters tend to be well-educated and often moneyed, which is something else that sets him apart from most other US indie filmmakers. Like Rohmer, though, Stillman keeps an ironic distance from his characters – a good example being the discussion of the sexual politics of Lady and the Tramp, a comic highlight of this film, however seriously the characters are taking it. But on the other hand, the film does have warmth towards its characters, even though they can and do act unsympathetically. Characters from Stillman’s previous films, Metropolitan and Barcelona, make brief reappearances here.
Chloe Sevigny had made a name for herself in Kids, three years earlier, while Kate Beckinsale had made Much Ado About Nothing and Shooting Fish amongst others. Both excel here, Sevigny as the somewhat gauche but sincere Alice and Beckinsale (in her first American film) as the icy, self-centred Charlotte. Both actors would go on to be much higher-profile in the coming decade. They have strong support here, particularly from Stillman regular Eigeman. Former Flashdance star turned indie stalwart Jennifer Beals and Jaid Barrymore (Drew's mother) appear in smaller roles.
But above all, Stillman’s film is a valentine to an era, and a type of music that is deeply unfashionable now – something he acknowledges in the film, in a short TV news item that shows disco records being set on fire. Many key records in the style are played during the club scenes. The sexual relationships between the characters are those of a different era, namely pre-AIDS when a sexually transmitted disease might be unpleasant but wasn't a death sentence. Stillman attempts to sum up a time and a place, and an attitude, and to acknowledge its passing, and to a great extent he succeeds.
Three years ago, when he reviewed a French DVD of The Last Days of Disco for this site, he said “It will certainly suffice until someone gives this film the Criterion DVD treatment it richly deserves.” Well, now he has his wish. The Last Days of Disco is number 485 in the Criterion Collection. It comprises a single dual-layered disc encoded for Region 1 only.
The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 1.78:1, opened up slightly from the original 1.85:1, and anamorphically enhanced, mastered in high definition from a 35mm interpositive. The result is excellent. Skintones are a little reddish, but that's down to the original film as far as I remember it. Blacks are solid, which is just as well considering how much of this film takes place inside a disco at night. Given the subject matter, there are inevitably some strobe lighting effects.
The soundtrack is Dolby Digital 5.1. This particularly comes to life in the club scenes, with music and ambience coming from the surrounds. Considering how important the bass line is to disco/funk, that means the subwoofer gets a workout too. (Learning bassists could do worse than to play along to some of the tracks here, particularly those by Chic, with lines by the late great Bernard Edwards.) Dialogue is clear and well-balanced. Subtitles are available for the hard-of-hearing, though on the feature only.
The commentary features Whit Stillman, Chloe Sevigny and Chris Eigeman. Stillman takes the lead for the most part, describing how the film was made under time pressure to beat 54 into the cinemas. He discusses his filmmaking methods and influences. Sevigny is frequently audibly embarrassed by her on-screen dancing.
The remaining extras are a little lightweight by Criterion standards. There are four deleted scenes, with a commentary by Stillman, Eigeman and Sevigny, which reveal a subplot featuring Jimmy that was removed from the final version. There is a play-all option, and the scenes in total run 8:12, and seem to be transferred from a video source..Also included are a brief making-of featurette (5:49) that clearly came from an electronic press-kit and the theatrical trailer (2:14).
In 2000, Stillman wrote a novel, The Last Days of Disco, with Cocktails at Petrossian Afterwards. This had the metafictional conceit that Jimmy Steinway is commissioned to novelise the film, and compares the film's events with his own memories. In an audio-only feature running ten minutes, Stillman introduces and reads an extract from the novel's epilogue, “Life Among the Moon Worshippers”.
The on-disc extras are completed by a stills gallery with text captions by Stillman, which are generally detailed and informative. One of them simply says, “I love Chloe”.
Included in the package is not so much a booklet, but an eight-page fold-out leaflet. It contains an essay, “Pop Paradise” by David Schickler. He is very appreciative of the film and makes an interesting comparison between Stillman and another American writer/director who deals with very different social backgrounds but has an equally distinctive way with dialogue, namely David Mamet. The leaflet also contains film and DVD credits and transfer notes.