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Whit and Wisdom in 'Days'

[whitespace] The Last Days of Disco
Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie: Chloë Sevigny and Chris Eigeman enjoy the privileges of youth and class in Whit Stillman's 'The Last Days of Disco.'

Whit Stillman focuses on foibles of young elites in 'Last Days of Disco'

By Michelle Goldberg

WHIT STILLMAN is perhaps the only director in America with the nerve to make sympathetic films about spoiled rich kids. From the class angst of John Hughes' films to the corny faux populism of Titanic, American movies prove that moneyed WASPS are among the only stock villains left in our culture.

"It's almost as if they're preparing a holocaust, and they're going to burn them all," says Stillman about the upper class. "The propaganda is so vitriolic, and it's so absurd, because the people making the movies are far, far, far, far richer than anyone on the Titanic."

Stillman's new film, The Last Days of Disco, is the final installment in a trio of movies (that started with Metropolitan and Barcelona) about the foibles of young, privileged East Coasters. Set in Manhattan in the early '80s, it chronicles the lives of Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and her catty friend Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale, last seen in Cold Comfort Farm), recent Hampshire College grads who escape the tedium of their publishing jobs and cramped railroad apartment by spending their nights in a grandiose, exclusive nightclub modeled after Studio 54.

Perhaps more than any other movie about night life, The Last Days of Disco captures the exhilaration of having a club's red velvet ropes part as you sail ahead of the throng waiting outside and the delicious snobbish joy of uttering those four magic words: "I'm on the list."

But the film is much more than a celebration of the pleasures of elitism. The Last Days of Disco also details those lovely periods when a clique coalesces, formerly lonely people are ensconced safely in a group and a nightclub seems like the center of the world.

"I think there's a huge hunger, at least I feel it, for group social life in America," Stillman says. "It really struck me when I visited my cousins in Mexico--the sort of charming life that they had with groups of people going off to places together. Even when they were very young there would be places where they could reunite and see people. They were all in groups of friends, and they could pair off in a rather gentle way. In our country, except at certain moments in school, there isn't that. And so when social life provides that occasion, it's sort of a precious time."

Like his other films, The Last Days of Disco is full of Stillman's trademark ultradroll dialogue. His characters communicate almost exclusively in the articulate, stylized repartee of the overeducated class, especially Charlotte (whose snottiness is so sharp it becomes almost charming) and Des, the coke-snorting club manager and Harvard dropout (Stillman standby Chris Eigeman).

Eigeman's characters are the quintessence of Stillman's work--equal parts deadpan cosmopolitan cockiness, low-key self-loathing and preppy dandyism. Strangely, though Eigeman absolutely ignites Stillman's movies, he's probably better known on the West Coast for the Pac Bell commercials in which he plays an office employee so hated that his co-workers take up a collection to buy him telecommuting equipment.

The distinction between the two roles--mischievous fop and obnoxious outcast--is indicative of the way Stillman thinks his movies have been misinterpreted. Fans of Metropolitan and Barcelona tend to regard Stillman's work as satire, intended to savage his shallow characters. But Stillman explains that he never meant to mock the bourgeoisie.

"People misinterpret it as satire when it's more comic--and it's more affectionate comedy than not," he says. "I'm sometimes surprised that people find all the characters really dislikable, though I'm pleased if someone is able to like the film even though they think that my point of view toward the characters is much more negative than it actually is."

STILLMAN, AFTER ALL, is himself a member of the preppy class. "My family was schizophrenic because we're part of the bourgeois world, and yet my parents were political and involved with left-liberal causes," he tells me. "They were sort of antisocial in their stated point of view but rather social in their actions. I love and respect my parents and admire what they did in politics, but they would tend to fall in that trap of despising all Republicans, Episcopalians, golf players, country clubbers, on and on. And I really didn't want to be in that mind-set. I wanted to not despise people from different groups."

Stillman's next movie, though, won't have anything to do with wealthy New Yorkers. "The Last Days of Disco is supposed to be the culminating film, although chronologically it takes place slightly before Barcelona," Stillman says.

"We've done everything we wanted to do in these three films," he adds, "and the next project will be very different. It will be a historical film set in 1780, during the American revolution. It's about the internecine warfare in the South between the Whigs and Tories. It will have a slight swashbuckling element, but it will also have a more serious dramatic element."

As if emphasizing for himself a need to change course, Stillman concludes, "I essentially want to do a film I'm completely unqualified to do. To go back to that experience of the first film, when there's complete doubt about how it will turn out and nothing you've done before is that useful."


The Last Days of Disco (R; 120 min.), directed and written by Whit Stillman, photographed by John Thomas and starring Chloë Sevigny, Kate Beckinsale and Chris Eigeman.

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From the June 4-10, 1998 issue of Metro.

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