The Last Days of Disco July 20, 2018
Robert Sean Leonard
1 Hr., 53 Mins.
A year later, the foursome would be no more. Collaboration was too difficult. Audiences weren’t as invested as they once were: sales, though respectable, were hardly as gigantic as The Visitors’ antecedents. ABBA never got together again. (At least until this April, when the four-piece announced that they would be releasing their first single since 1983.)
ABBA were never definitively a disco band. They were, rather, disco dilettantes who most notably embraced the genre with the classic-ridden, albeit sometimes-clunky, Voulez-Vous, from 1979. Yet it is the release, and aftermath, of The Visitors that feels most emblematic of the end of the disco era to me. Even though disco had so recently been an omnipotent cultural force — as ABBA, who managed to incur Beatles-style brouhaha for a time, had been — it seemed to have been decided relatively abruptly that it would be no more, vored by sudden outdatedness.
Whit Stillman’s third film, The Last Days of Disco, from 1998, is set around the time ABBA quit and disco “died” — “the very early ‘80s,” says a title card early on. Recently, the film celebrated its 20th anniversary, and to watch it in 2018 is a curious experience. Remaining powerful is the way it uses the end of a recognizable cultural era to complement the transitioning lives of a cast of young characters. Here, one period ends and another begins, both literally and existentially.
But interesting, now, is how much farther away disco feels than it might have in 1998. How much the movie looks like the finale in a trilogy. (After its completion, Stillman took a 13-year hiatus, with only Disco, 1990’s Metropolitan, and 1994’s Barcelona to his name.) Or how much, from the vantage point of today, leading actresses Kate Beckinsale and (especially) Chloë Sevigny appear far more representative of a particular era than they did two decades ago.
It is still remarkable. Typical of Stillman, whose brand of satire is almost unnervingly penetrating, it is a perceptive group portrait of hyperliterate post-grad 20-somethings who think they’re smarter and funnier than they actually are.
It is a period piece, yet The Last Days of Disco boasts lasting universality. With intuitive eyes, it watches publishing industry wannabes Alice (Sevigny) and Charlotte (Beckinsale) try to figure out themselves, and their lives, against an unsteady backdrop of shitty men (some friends and some lovers) and frequent visits to the discotheques which pepper the central New York to get away from it all.
These characters are expertly developed, and we alternately love and abhor them. Charlotte is a hornet who has better ideas of what she wants and who she wants to be than she does how to actually get those wants and how she is actually perceived. She’d be flummoxed to find that she comes across as an entitled imp with a whim for giving advice that both isn’t asked for and characterizes her as someone who tries too hard to sound sagacious.
Alice, who is quieter, more intelligent, and yet more vulnerable to the venom of others, will come to realize her worth. When we first meet her, though, she’s still susceptible to the misguided guidance of others. When Charlotte says the best way to flirt is to subtly insert the word “sexy” into every one or two sentences, for example, Alice manages to earnestly intimate that she thinks Uncle Scrooge, the nickname of the lead character from the classic Scrooge McDuck comics, was a hunk during the pre-stages of a one-night stand.
The men with whom Alice and Charlotte spend their time range from self-pitying to insufferably in love with themselves. Sometimes, however, combinations of the two descriptors can come about.
Des (Chris Eigeman), who during one act casually courts Charlotte, co-manages one of the nightclubs the women and their mutual friends frequent. He’s a likable weasel, to be sure. He has a habit of making breakups easier by pretending that it’s because he’s come to the realization that he’s gay; he is partial to going on off-topic, jerry-built philosophical rants to prove his acuity. In one hilariously high-strung scene, he pretentiously deconstructs Disney’s 1955 musical The Lady and the Tramp.
Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), another sometimes love interest, is a conceited yuppie who in no doubt will still get ahead in life; Josh (Matt Kesslar) is a successful assistant district attorney who finds that his quick ascent to the top is primed to take a psychic toll.
Other characters — like Holly (Tara Subkoff), Alice and Charlotte's roommate; Tom (Patrick Sean Leonard), an ostentatious environmental lawyer with whom Alice has a brief affair; and Dan (Matt Ross), a snobbish co-worker and Harvard graduate — drift in and out.
Among of the things that stick with me the most about the feature is that none of these people are necessarily friends per se: they’re just sticking together. What else can you do when you’re living in a big city, and are so young and unsure of yourself that you have yet to really know if you’re saddled with an abysmal friend or not? This is certainly true for Alice and Charlotte: Both would probably call the other their best friend, even though neither they nor we are sure they like each other. As an inchoate 20-something myself, this hits close to home: I still have friendships like this.
Irrevocably, The Last Days of Disco’s conceit is that all of these people undoubtedly have acumen and promise — all they need to do now is get to know themselves, and the world surrounding them, a bit better. Otherwise, they’ll continue looking an awful lot like shammy intellectuals feigning world-weariness.
Some of them will always be stuck in this bubble. But that’s part of the reason why I think the movie’s reputation has grown so much: It is finally about that moment in your life during which you think more critically about who you are and what you have to offer and then must decide if you’re going to make the effort to tend to any necessary changes. From the get-go, it is about a new beginning. Just like the end of disco; just like the release of The Visitors. A
ov. 30, 1981: ABBA, the ubiquitous Swedish pop quartet, has just released The Visitors, their eighth studio album. Something’s off. Per usual, the songs are emotionally rich. But there’s a touch of existential uncertainty. It's a bit elegiac, as if things were winding down. At first, this seems peculiar. Then it’s unsurprising. Consider: Both the couples that made up the group, Benni and Anni-Frid, Björn and Agnetha, had broken up. Working together was getting tiresome. The top-of-the-world bastion didn't seem so sturdy anymore.