If the title of writer-director Whit Stillman's third film has the ring of a serious examination of a lost civilization (akin to The Last Days of Pompeii), it's because he treats the decline of disco culture with the seriousness of a verbose, thesis-wielding academic.
Stillman's films, Metropolitan (1990), Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco, are a loosely connected trilogy portraying the privileged lives, troubled loves and insular attitudes of upper-class WASPs, a group for whom the phrase "I'm coming out" has more to do with cotillions than closets.
Set in "the very early '80s," Last Days follows two recent graduates of Hampshire College, the thoughtful Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and driven Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), who find themselves working together in low-level "reader" jobs at a New York City publishing house. At night they gravitate toward "the club," a disco so hip and exclusive that its name is never actually spoken.
"Before disco, this country was a dancing wasteland," Charlotte smugly declares, anxious to distance her generation from the Woodstock baby boomers who, despite their influence on the political and cultural climate, just can't dance.
It's at the club that they connect with four slightly older Harvard schoolmates, whose camaraderie is tinged with tense rivalries: advertising agency go-getter Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin); Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), a lawyer gravitating toward environmental causes; Josh (Matt Keeslar), a dewy-eyed assistant district attorney with manic-depressive episodes in his past; and the smarmy Des (Chris Eigeman), who runs the club's backstage area when he's not dumping love-struck women by calmly informing them that he thinks he's gay.
Stillman choreographs an elaborate hustle for these six characters (with a sometimes dizzying array of secondary players mixed in), but the real focus is on the two women. The immensely self-centered Charlotte, who cloaks vicious put-downs as well-meaning advice, is all ferocious ambition. Alice, whose quiet rectitude gets her compared to a kindergarten teacher, is the film's moral center. Stillman admirably tracks the complexities and dependency of their friendship, but seems ill at ease with female sexuality, coming down hard on perceived promiscuity.
While Stillman's clipped, arch dialogue drives the film (a patois specific to these overeducated, pop culture-savvy, but quite unworldly characters), he's also developed a smooth, unobtrusive visual style that's perfectly in synch with people who occasionally need to just shut up and dance.
While not exactly a historical document, The Last Days of Disco is a pithy reminder that in their heyday, discos were often populated by preppies (morphing imperceptibly into yuppies) dancing side by side with flamboyant scenesters, and that even the stiffest white people can still shake their groove thing.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.