If ever an ensemble breathed new life into the term "haute bourgeois," it's the lost-soul WASPs who wander through Whit Stillman's films, looking for fulfillment in all the wrong places. They're the kind of people who say things like "It's so important that we be in control of our own destinies," and mean it. Or "I live dangerously - on the edge," when it's clear they've never taken a risk in their lives. Or plunge into serious group discussion of who is the most admirable character in Lady and the Tramp. You might find this sort of banter in a Quentin Tarantino movie, except that its purpose would be to seduce audiences with a shower of pop references they can identify with. In The Last Days of Disco the patter expresses an arcane but plausible milieu that Stillman clearly understands from the inside. Yet he also sees how wildly anachronistic his characters must seem outside the refined ether of their own habitat. This tension is the backbone of his comedy.
Disco is the final film in a triptych about luckless preppies in love, or something resembling it. Perhaps out of a need for closure, Stillman has imported several major players from Metropolitan and Barcelona. Whatever his motive, the effect is one of a class reunion, in every sense. Inspired by a dance scene in Barcelona, the movie takes place in early '80s Manhattan, when disco fever was on its last legs, recession loomed and the dreaded "big H" (herpes) was about to shift to HIV. In a more gilded age, Hampshire College graduates Alice (Chloe Sevigny, smoothed into a blank-faced ingenue after her grim turn in Kids) and Charlotte (Cold Comfort Farm's Kate Beckinsale, remodeled as a saucy flapper with a flawless American accent) would be debutantes without a thought in their flighty heads but the next cotillion. Instead, the two young women toil by day as trainees in an uptown publishing house, wading through manuscripts in search of best-sellers while fending off Dan (Matthew Ross), the office socialist who purses his lips at their shallow nightlife even as he hankers after a slice of it. After hours, when not rustling up inedible meals from soup cans in their cramped railroad apartment, they dress to the nines and go looking for love (Alice) or sex (Charlotte) at their favorite dance club.
Upper crust though they are, the two women are bottom feeders among the garish disco aristocracy, the silver-painted drag queens and ravers in Cowardly Lion outfits. Alice and Charlotte have to take cabs around the corner in order to get the nod from the door nazi, just as the buttoned-down Harvard men they're after - Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), an ad man clinging to his job by escorting clients into the club, Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), an environmentally sound corporate law-yer, and Josh (Matt Keeslar), a novice district attorney with an unfortunate medical history - sneak in through the back door, with or without the reluctant help of their friend Des (played by the excellent Chris Eigeman, a Stillman regular), a sub-manager at the club who sloughs off used girlfriends by telling them he's gay. Stillman is as unsentimental about friendship as he is about love. Mistress of the precisely timed putdown, Charlotte is the chum from hell, a vacuous but cunning disco girl whose m.o. is to bestow calculatedly terrible advice on the quiet, dweeby Alice, humiliate her in public, apologize and then start over.
As romantic comedies go, Stillman's are curiously chaste throwbacks to the elegant opulence of '30s screwball. Though everyone's desperate to get laid and some - briefly - get lucky, you don't see them having sex: You see doors closing, you see mix-and-match post-coital couples lying demurely on their stomachs, analyzing their friends to death. Even when paired off, they're more interested in the life of the group. More comedy of manners than love story - there's precious little love and next to no story - Disco, like Metropolitan and Barcelona, works best as a comic closeup of an archaic subculture whose members struggle to put a respectable face on poor behavior and sustain self-regard as they negotiate a less-than-appreciative world. "Young, upwardly mobile, professional - those are good things," insists an aggrieved Des on being thrown out of a dance club for consorting with "yuppie scum."
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With The Last Days of Disco, Stillman may have drunk one time too many at the well of preppie angst. He's also set his movie against a dying culture that's probably best left for dead. Barcelona, framed by the giddy nightlife of urban Spain during the final burst of anti-Yank fever at the end of the Cold War, throbbed with significance as well as glamour. Disco culture throbs with nothing but the pounding beat and disembodied sexuality of its dance numbers. Stillman has sifted out the best of these for his soundtrack, and lit his movie in the same alluring mahogany that lent Barcelona its shimmering beauty, but in The Last Days of Disco there's no there there. The movie goes out, as disco did in life, more with a whimper than a thump.
In Under the Skin, a mother dies with next to no warning; her two grown daughters, trying to come to terms, flounder. This is heavily trodden turf, but British writer-director Carine Adler comes primed with freshman passion and a gift for showing more than she tells of deflected emotional distress. Nineteen-year-old Iris (television actress Samantha Morton, in a fine, fevered performance) dumps her job and her live-in boyfriend and goes into a tailspin of needy sexual encounters with total strangers, while squabbling bitterly over ashes and inheritance with Rose (Claire Rushbrook, last seen as the surly daughter in Secrets and Lies), the more settled older sister whom Iris believes to be her mother's favorite.
Under the Skin unfolds in the neat arc of a garden-variety movie of the week, with its reliable upward flip at the end. Yet with a small budget, a hand-held camera and the capable help of Ken Loach's cinematographer, Barry Ackroyd, Adler gives lyrical expression to Iris' desperate eros and to the tortured, polarizing interplay of the two sisters - one who's willing to feel anything but the pain of her loss, and the other who's working overtime at feeling nothing at all. Though it played to acclaim at Sundance and won prizes at the Toronto and Edinburgh film festivals, Under the Skin's disturbing theme and graphic sexual candor make it the kind of movie that gets swept under the rug as American distributors forage for the next The Full Monty. Good for Arrow Entertainment for picking up Under the Skin. Good for the Women's Film Festival for putting it on its slate. And good for Carine Adler who had the taste to bring back Rita Tushingham, delicately ravaged as the mother. Along with Julie Christie, Tushingham stands as one of the defining actors of '60s British cinema at its unruly best.
Under the Skin screens Wednesday, June 3, at 7:30 p.m., at the Los Angeles International Women's Film Festival (see Calendar Special Events for details), and opens in theatrical release June 5 at Laemmle's Music Hall.