Viewers who liked Whit Stillman’s first two films — Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1994) — should find much to enjoy in Stillman’s third (and most elaborate) film The Last Days of Disco. It employs the same sardonic, deadpan humor, the same sense of pain underneath it all and the same “end-of-an-era” sense of loss and longing — all while still being a dryly amusing comedy centered on well-spoken, likable, damaged and fairly absurd young people. The Last Days of Disco also takes one of its stars — Chris Eigeman — from the earlier films, and characters from both films make brief appearances. (It adds to the pleasure if you catch these references, but it’s not essential.)
Set in “the very early ’80s” when disco was fading fast, the film’s actual focus is mostly on two hopeful up-and-coming book editors (readers, actually) — Chloë Sevigny (climbing out of the Harmony Korine sewer) and Kate Beckinsale (before Pearl Harbor and the Underworld movies made her something of a walking punchline) — who spend as much spare time as possible at the film’s vaguely Studio 54-ish disco in search of love and validation. To them — and to most of the characters — the world of the disco is both the social and intellectual center of the universe. To these folks, this might as well be Paris in the 1920s.
On the surface, this may sound ludicrous or at least delusional on the part of the characters — especially, if you were hostile to disco at the time. (Of course, we now know that there were far worse things awaiting music than disco.) But the end-of-an-era tone — not to mention that all Whit Stillman characters seem to live in a fantasy out of an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel — makes it work. The film celebrates the era and its music, but is keenly aware of its shallowness and absurdity. It’s all pretty marvelous — at once funny and touching but never asking for sympathy. We like its characters not so much for their debatable qualities, but for their awkward attempts to present themselves (to themselves) as so much more clever and worldly than they are.
The Asheville Film Society will screen The Last Days of Disco Tuesday, Sept. 16, at 8 p.m. in Theater Six at The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.