The Last Days of Disco (1998)

The Last Days of Disco is Stillman’s return to the ideas of Metropolitan, an examination about how groups fall apart, only in this case it’s the dissipation of an entire subculture. However, since Barcelona, Stillman’s sensibilities evolved further into something idealistically similar but stylistically different from his previous two films. The biting, satirical undertone is replaced by genuine, straightforward drama.

Another major change is Stillman’s use of dialogue. While his previous screenplays have featured a lot of fierce wordplay and playful exaggeration, the conversations in The Last Days of Disco are much more subtle and grounded. There’s still some humor to tease out and some clever exchanges, but they’re not as overt and winking as his previous films. Instead of letting the audience in on the joke, Stillman forces them to pay attention and dig for what’s really going on in some of these conversations.

The most obvious example is the debate over Lady and the Tramp. As Des (Chris Eigeman), one of the club employees, and Josh (Matt Keeslar), a District Attorney, argue whether or not the romantic outcome of Lady in the Tramp is a good or bad thing, it becomes clear they’re arguing about their personal romantic viability for one of the women in the group. Is it okay for a women to go out with a tramp, or should she really be pursuing a good guy?

Twisting this, it’s curious that Stillman makes the situations much more overtly comical than his previous films. The setting of disco clubs, in retrospect, allows some of this humor to unfold. Seeing people who are educated and professional in their work lives given to something as brazenly cheesy and low-art as disco gives Stillman the chance to rib at the ridiculousness of these character’s behaviors.

The impressive evolution in Stillman’s style is the way he structures the story. The film centers on the lives of Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), two women who work at the same book publisher and eventually decide to get an apartment together. While Stillman uses them as the anchoring point, the film traces a number of side characters that appear here and there throughout the film.

Stillman’s ability to introduce and bring into play characters that before seemed ancillary while cycling out characters one thought might stick around longer on the surface appears not much different than Metropolitan. But more than just a shuffle of characters, Stillman uses it to push forward narrative strains and leave behind bits that aren’t developed in order to bring closure to the film. It’s an elegant, economical approach that speaks on the higher level of evolving group dynamics but, unlike Metropolitan, also has practical story applications.

Also, by doing this, Stillman makes the film much more dramatic. The characters in this film come to some major crossroads where their circumstances are complicated and compromising and some choices have to be made that will have ramifications for the entire group. Stillman gives these choices the gravitas and weight that wasn’t present in his earlier films.

One could argue this makes for a better, more involving film, but it’s a different flavor of the same thing. It’s a film with sympathetic characters caught in a fragile group, lost in their own individuality. That is what continues to be the signature of Stillman’s film. It changes forms and progresses, reflecting the nature of groups themselves: nebulous, evolving and moving. Here’s hoping it’s a long while before Stillman himself is forced to separate from the international group that is filmmaking.

© 2012 James Blake Ewing