One of the least prolific of highly acclaimed directors, Academy Award nominee (Best Original Screenplay for 1990’s Metropolitan) Whit Stillman has directed only four feature films. The Last Days of Disco (1998) was the third of those, a box office flop that was embraced by critics as well as Stillman’s cult fanbase. The Criterion Collection has issued the film on Blu-ray with a director-approved transfer and lossless surround sound mix that makes the most of the disco classics peppering the soundtrack.
The film certainly isn’t for everyone, strongly de-emphasizing plot in favor of elaborate conversation. It’s not so much a character study as a subculture study, focusing on yuppies coming of age at the dawn of the ‘80s. Still, fashion and music tastes aside, people haven’t changed all that much in the last 30 years or so, which means the film’s characters remain relatable and, at times, insightful, regardless of which era they exist in.
The film follows the interactions of Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), friends and recent college grads who work as assistant editors for the same publisher. Theirs is one of those prickly friendships based more on the fact that neither has a significant other more than any common interests. Both are insecure in their own way, but Charlotte is the dominant friend. She makes the decisions, such as moving into an apartment together. Alice hates the floor plan, but agrees anyway because she is the passive one. She also turns out to be a virgin, which plays a serious role in her brief relationship with Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), a lawyer with a Scrooge McDuck fixation.
Along with a circle of friends and colleagues, Alice and Charlotte frequent an in-demand disco and try to find guys they’d like to date. Charlotte is the know-it-all, forever trying to advise Alice on what she needs to be doing to get with guys. Of the male characters, most of them aren’t exactly great potential catches. Des (Chris Eigeman), when looking for a way out of a relationship, feigns homosexuality. Dan (Matt Ross) is a condescending employee at the same publishing company as Alice and Charlotte. Though he often throws out scathing comments towards them, Alice manages to find some common ground with him. The backdrop to all this is the quickly disintegrating disco scene. In fact, actual news footage of the infamous July 12, 1979 Disco Demolition Night during a Chicago White Sox double-header is used late in the film.
Stillman’s dialogue is insightful, witty, and for the most part very believable. The pleasures of the film lie in the way the characters interact with each other, often revealing themselves to be superficial, but sometimes displaying surprising depth. However, it’s not hard to see why it didn’t find a wider audience. Many filmgoers are turned off even by the pseudo-intellectualism that the characters of Last Days revel in. But for those who don’t shy away from stories about peevish, off-putting, and manipulative characters, it’s the kind of film that reveals more with repeated viewings. Beckinsale and especially Sevigny are note-perfect as young women trying to come to grips with who they are and what they want out of relationships and life in general.