Film: The Big Picture: Lost in music, caught in a trap

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EVERYTHING SPARKLES in the fictional nightclub at the centre of Whit Stillman's slightly sad comedy, The Last Days of Disco. Under the spangled light from the glitterball, the dancers are united in their absent-minded beauty. Pockets of glitter are released from the rafters. Even as the club is being busted by cops, the glitter keeps on falling.

Stillman is a maker of anthropological studies which double as social comedies. His previous features, Metropolitan and Barcelona, focused on the attempts of the intellectual middle classes to define and control their environment through a manipulation of codes and etiquette that could reasonably be described as Jamesian. The Last Days of Disco does not depart from either theme or subject, but the suggestion of pop culture invading the airless milieu which Stillman has made his own does introduce a pleasingly discordant note, however faint.

The film announces itself as unfolding in "the very early Eighties" and follows two young women, the insecure Alice (Chloe Sevigny) and her benignly narcissistic friend Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale), as they gravitate toward clubbing as a means of relief from humdrum publishing jobs. One detail which these actresses have got precisely right is the posture of their characters: shoulders back, faces tilted forward as though to tan under the lights, eyes casually drifting toward the periphery to clock who's watching. The key is not just to enjoy yourself, but to be seen to be enjoying yourself. Surface is everything. The most innocuous misreading can nurture a reputation - a man who is padding away from the club after being refused entry can appear, to a passer-by, as though he is leaving early, arrogantly unimpressed by what his social circle considers the epitome of cool.

There seems at first to be something jarring about a film-maker as cerebral as Stillman investigating a movement conjured out of sweat, drugs and sensuality - the trend in modern cinema being for a subject to be addressed in a corresponding style, for gangster movies to be hard and fast, for horror to be hysterical. But this works in the film's favour. Stillman's analytical distance from the disco scene opens up possibilities denied by the heightened identification of Boogie Nights or Saturday Night Fever. Now you can see that there are as many clubbers trying to convince themselves and each other that they are having a great time as there are clubbers who are actually having a great time.

It gradually becomes apparent that Stillman is interested not in the specific properties of disco, but in using the scene as another example of how human beings construct situations in which they can determine their own status and progress. The nightclub's ruthlessly elitist door policy exists so that the people who get in can measure how wonderful they are, and the ones who do not can resign themselves to being nobodies, both categories of citizen conspiring equally to maintain this microcosm of the class system.

The characters are obsessed with definitions. When Alice and Charlotte decide to share an apartment, they are dismissed as a Yuppie room-mate combo. There are "Harvard men" and there are "people with low socio-economic prospects". A character with a nose for cocaine protests, "I'm not an addict, I'm an habitual user", while an out-of-work executive argues "Unemployed is not who I am". There are your straightforward Yuppies too, though there is much discussion about whether a social group can actually exist if no one admits to being a part of it.

Des (Chris Eigeman), a nightclub employee, draws on the benefits of a group to which he does not even belong, feigning homosexuality in order to break off relationships and retain the respect, the admiration even, of his ex-girlfriends, all of whom detect a certain cachet in having dated a gay man. This furious snowstorm of labels provides a convenient distraction for those characters who wish to delay finding out who they really are. One of the film's pivotal scenes is a discussion between Des and his attorney friend Josh (Matt Keeslar) about the advice "to thine own self be true". "What if thine own self is not so good?" despairs Des. "What if it's pretty bad?" Fear of self-discovery permeates their lives.

On "Into the Groove," one of the most perceptive lyrics in pop music, Madonna sang "Only when I'm dancing can I feel this free", but for the friends in The Last Days of Disco, dancing brings only a perceived freedom. When Charlotte goes home with a man she has met at the club, he puts on the joyous "More, More, More", the same record that was ringing out over the dancefloor only moments earlier, and there is a sense of sustained artificiality - music employed not merely as an aphrodisiac, but to create coherence where there is confusion.

Back at the club, when the tangerine-tanned proprietor Bernie (David Thornton) tells his DJ "`Good Times', Michael", he is dictating the mood as much as the name of the next record. Like drugs, which make their presence felt as the club nears implosion point, music has an illusory power. Stillman's interest is in watching what happens when the illusion falls apart - when the real world, which has been denied as much by the movie as by its characters, finally presses in.

Even as this happens, Stillman keeps the rigidly-controlled surface of the picture intact. His choice of characters is especially significant; to set a film in the disco era while excluding prominent gay or black characters is a perverse decision designed to underline the dislocation of these cocooned white preppies who think they are where it's at.

There is a coldness to Stillman's approach from which some may recoil, but which is quite refreshing. Better directors than him have attempted to conceal their calculated methods by feigning compassion for people about whom they clearly could not care less. I feel patronised by Eric Rohmer's Pauline at the Beach, for instance, or Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters, two films which reduce emotional permutations to mathematical theorem under an anaesthetising layer of comedy.

Stillman is more blatant than that, which can bring him perilously close to overstatement. The ongoing discussions about whether a person can change themselves or only their context are driven home with an extended dissection of the subtext of Lady and the Tramp, during which you may sense the weight of huge inverted commas bearing down on you. But out of that can come a beautiful, delicate moment which assumes its own life - such as Charlotte gently but confidently singing "Amazing Grace", the theme song for anyone who has survived despair, depression or simply the closing of their favourite nightclub.