Those uptight young things

The Last Days of Disco 15
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The Independent Culture
Whit Stillman is the poet laureate of preppie self-justification. In Metropolitan, one protagonist (played by Chris Eigeman) declares that he wants to be known as one of the "Urban Haute Bourgeoisie". In its sort-of sequel Barcelona, a self-important naval officer (again played by Chris Eigeman) goes ballistic at the thought that not everyone might be grateful for the American presence in Spain. And now, in the third instalment of Stillman's loose trilogy, a Waspish ex-Harvard man (guess who?) is appalled at the idea he might be a yuppie. As his mate says, "That's disgusting. It's like something out of the Nazis."

In The Last Days of Disco, it's the early 1980s, and we're observing the alliances, ententes and disagreements within a group of young college graduates, hanging out at the fag-end of the Manhattan disco scene. Chloe Sevigny's Alice is a gauche young woman who makes the mistake of allowing the poisonous Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) to become her emotional mentor. "You're a good conversationalist, but there's something of the kindergarten teacher about you," Charlotte pronounces, dressing up insult as friendly advice. "Whenever you can, throw the word `sexy' into your conversation." Alice follows her to the letter: when a boy she fancies shows her his comic collection, she attempts to seduce him with the come-on, "There's something really sexy about Scrooge McDuck."

The relationship between Alice and Charlotte is the nearest the movie has to an emotional centre. In pitch-perfect Ivy League vowels, Beckinsale gives what is easily the best performance of her career so far. It's no mean feat to suggest the desperation that might exist within a character as toxic as Charlotte - especially as the events of the movie lead you glumly to conclude that as the 1980s progress, her selfishness will probably see her right. And Sevigny makes a perfect victim for this sugared viciousness. Alice is a decent enough person, but she is making a fool of herself in the questionable cause of gaining acceptance from a bunch of uptight young professionals. Sevigny has a difficult, androgynous sexiness, and can play social embarrassment with photographic accuracy.

There's a whole gang of boys, too: Eigeman's sly club manager, who pretends to be gay in order to dump unwanted girlfriends; Robert Sean Leonard's scrubbed corporate lawyer; Mackenzie Astin's conniving adman; Matt Keeslar's junior public prosecutor, who surveys the dancefloor and - without irony - declares: "It's what I've always dreamt of. Cocktails, dancing, exchanging ideas and points of view."

All turn in creditable individual performances, but Stillman takes great pains to prevent any genuine ensemble acting taking place. These characters might all go to the same club to dance to Amii Stewart, but they exist in a state of wintry disengagement. They snipe, they compete, they speechify, they conduct passionless sexual relationships with each other; but they never actually communicate anything important. Even their mutual interest in disco becomes an expression of their constipated sensibilities.

This is what makes Stillman a notable director. Others would strive for sentimental effect, but he remains aloof and detached. As much American cinema has become clogged with characters who blather on in pseudo-empathic cliches, it's amazing how invigorating such chilliness can be.