How can the spiritually conscious artist hold the attention of an audience whose members, as Flannery O’Connor bluntly put it, have had the moral sense bred out of them? “A secular society,” she said in 1963, “understands the religious mind less and less. It becomes more and more difficult in America to make belief believable. . . . It takes less and less belief acted upon to make one appear a fanatic. When you create a character who believes vigorously in Christ, you have to explain his aberration.” Things haven’t changed much in thirty-five years, especially in Hollywood, where all truth is relative and all guilt liberal. But not all movies are made in Hollywood, and a surprising number of independent filmmakers seem to have figured out that there’s more to this world than meets the eye.
“Seem” is the key word here, since in our current age of militant tolerance, religion is too radioactive to be handled without lead-lined gloves. This is why the most convincing “religious” movies to be released in recent years have been parables sufficiently ambiguous to give their makers plenty of wiggle room when the culture cops come calling. Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy, for instance, was a raucous comedy about lesbianism that turned out on closer inspection to be an O’Connoresque tale of grace and redemption, told from a Catholic point of view. Granted, not many people, Catholics included, got the point, but it was there to be gotten—Smith has since admitted as much—and had it been made less subtly, fewer people would have taken the film seriously.
Though Whit Stillman has yet to make any such admission about The Last Days of Disco, it’s hard to believe that he intended his third movie, which deals with the messy love lives of a group of young New Yorkers who frequent a club not unlike Studio 54, to be nothing more than a charming story of romance in the early ’80s. No sermons are preached in The Last Days of Disco: we merely see what happens to the characters as they make their hapless way in a world that has renounced religion as a guide to life. Yet their collective misadventures add up to a withering critique of contemporary American culture, one that is all the more effective for having been played for laughs.
The elaborate plot of The Last Days of Disco centers on Alice Kinnon (Chloe Sevigny) and Charlotte Pingress (Kate Beckinsale), two publishing-house flunkies—a coveted entry-level job for bright young things with brand-new Ivy League degrees and allowances from home—who spend their nights partying at the most fashionable club in New York, where they become acquainted with a group of similarly situated men. More than anything else, they long to be thought worldly (“I live dangerously—on the edge”), but neither girl knows all that much about sex, and their male friends, it soon emerges, are scarcely more knowledgeable. In downtown New York, such ignorance is unforgivable, so Alice and Charlotte move into a railroad flat together and plunge into the high waters of sexual experience.
For the agonizingly shy Alice, the club appears at first glance to be a haven where she can shed her unwanted inhibitions to the pounding beat of dance music, but it is in fact a sinister place where money is laundered and cocaine snorted, and an air of decadence and doom hangs over its drab facade and glittering interior. “I have a very bad feeling about the club,” one character says. “It’s like a meteorite is headed straight for it. It’s going to destroy everything.” Neither is his apocalyptic prediction far wrong: At film’s end, the club has been shuttered by the police, and the young men and women who once danced there have lost their virginity, their jobs, and their innocence.
Bleak though this description may sound, The Last Days of Disco is on the surface a souffle-light romantic comedy in the style of Metropolitan and Barcelona. It’s little short of remarkable that in the space of just three films, Stillman has already succeeded in creating an immediately recognizable, utterly personal cinematic world, one whose inhabitants all speak in the same droll, oddly formal manner. We take it for granted that characters from his earlier films should turn up at the club—Audrey Roget has come a long way since Metropolitan—and that Chris Eigeman, who had starring roles in both films, should reappear yet again in The Last Days of Disco, this time in the secondary but brilliantly realized part of a heel from Harvard who ditches his girlfriends by telling them he’s gay. (I can’t imagine why Eigeman isn’t making more movies: His work for Stillman, here as always, is letter-perfect.)
But just as the witty dialogue of Metropolitan and Barcelona concealed a hard core of moral seriousness, so does The Last Days of Disco speak pointedly of the myriad ways in which the sexual revolution has laid waste to countless lives. “Thank God, this is a whole new era,” Charlotte blithely informs Alice as they look down at the dance floor. “We’re in complete control. There are a lot of choices out there. . . . I just think it’s so important to be in control of your own destiny.” Little do they realize that the ideas they have picked up so casually from their older siblings carry with them dire consequences, and that their freely made “choices” will soon bring them pain and grief—and, in Alice’s case, sickness.
One of the most thought-provoking aspects of The Last Days of Disco is the unobtrusive manner in which it shows how religion has largely ceased to be a part of upper-middle-class American life—though it is omnipresent in the script, slightly out of focus but nonetheless unmistakable for those with eyes to see. Churches pop up in the background, but no one ever speaks of them, much less goes into one to worship; one character admits to almost believing in God, but his confession is explained away (or is it?) as a symptom of manic depression. In the last scene, Stillman’s chastened children march off to adulthood as church bells toll softly in the background: The meteorite has struck at last, destroying the last redoubt of their youth and leaving them to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives.
The delicate touch with which this tricky scene is brought off is a reflection of Whit Stillman’s underlying optimism. His earnest young men and women take life so seriously precisely because they are so very young, and our certainty that they will ultimately prevail makes their anxiety charming. Yet in each of his three films, he has moved his fictional world a bit closer to the present, and it will be interesting to see what happens when he starts to make films about older people. How will the fresh-faced debutantes of Metropolitan and the not-yet-jaded clubgoers of The Last Days of Disco cope with the inevitable narrowing of horizons that accompanies the onset of middle age? Will their marriages come undone? Will they find themselves longing for the comforts of faith—and will they long in vain? We ask these questions of Stillman because we are simultaneously asking them of ourselves, and I have no doubt that the answers he supplies will tell much about the troubled lives of the baby boomers as the 20th century gives way to the 21st.