Whit Stillman’s new film, Love and Friendship, is notable not just for being such a rarity (being after all his fifth film in 26 years) but also for reuniting the stars of his cult classic The Last Days of Disco, Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny. This is no accident: throughout his career, Stillman has been known to use recasting as a kind of stunt. Several main and bit-players in his debut Metropolitan returned in subsequent works, so as to deliberately forge a connected universe. Love and Friendship is therefore consciously something of a companion piece to Last Days – a strange thing, considering the apparent differences between this heavily-costumed Jane Austen adaptation and the earlier exploration of 1980s Manhattan.
The Last Days of Disco, released in 1998 as the final part of Stillman’s “Doomed Bourgeois in Love” trilogy, owes just as much to Austen as its predecessors Metropolitan (1990) and Barcelona (1993). All Stillman’s work shares that debt to the classic author – it is incredibly precise, with layers of wit, irony and social observation, and depictions of intelligence, grace, hypocrisy, stupidity, hysteria, neurosis, linguistic obfuscations and all the other things that make up the archetypal comedy-of-manners. In Last Days, Stillman’s usual studious concerns with privileged, garrulous twentysomethings (and one relative outsider) are rendered even more dissective by their transplantation to a specific milieu, south-east Manhattan of 1980. The plot roughly follows two publishing assistants – quieter Alice (Sevigny) and the more glamorous Charlotte (Beckinsale) – and their graduate friends around the disco scene, including earnest bar manager Des (Chris Eigeman), depressed attorney Josh (Matt Keeslar) and hilariously entitled ad-man Jimmy (Mackenzie Austin).
By pushing his characters further out into the real NYC, and in a period so famously grim for the city, Stillman builds on his usual anthropological approach. Not that the period seems specific for much of the film: Stillman’s – and Austen’s – starting-point is social satire, so it makes sense that the first, most obvious and governing joke in Last Days is its apparent lack of period. We are told at the outset that this is 1980, but you can’t really tell – most of Stillman’s characters in this trilogy look the same, all five-dollar haircuts and pressed suits. By extension, what he’s very quietly observing (through nothing more than vaguely intertextual costume choices) is that a certain section of society simply hasn’t seen the same clear fashion changes as the surrounding culture. This is crucial to the film; it is a story about discos but without a single rollerskate, perm or flare.
So it is that we see history being presented in a quintessentially Stillman way – right down, in fact, to that hilariously on-the-nose title. Like his characters, Stillman apparently goes for pronouncement rather than subtext: this film, we are told, is simply about the last days of disco. It is conveniently straightforward and perhaps knowingly cod-intellectual. It’s like calling Citizen Kane “Unchecked Capitalism” or, to borrow from an extended conversation between Last Days‘ characters, calling Lady and the Tramp “Ill-Advised Romance“. What beautiful reduction. This is how Stillman roles are written: characters come out and say – or rather, state – things apparently without subtlety, though rather complexly this style actually conceals its own layers of meaning.
This is simply because the surface words, those capital-s “Statements”, are the vital component. The very sound of Stillman’s dialogue forces us to listen out for concealed meanings, to luxuriate in his knack for knitting together entire plots based entirely on how characters may or may not have acted toward one another. It is reductio ad absurdum – the whole thing is rendered insane through this comical juxtaposing of serious themes with such apathetic characters, and such grandiloquent asseveration with such deadpan delivery. Stillman has a thesis here, a discursive throughline, but presents it with such knowing straightforwardness, reveling like Austen in an hilariously moderate approach to knotty plotting. Last Days opens as the characters convene around the central nightclub, with Jimmy striking the first blow against the status quo by trying to bring two elderly, stiffly uncool clients: the conflict created by this small failed act reverberates throughout, effectively bringing around the disco apocalypse. As referred to on numerous occasions by several characters, we had something cool – until the yuppies came in. There is an entire web of romantic entanglements, and a surprisingly dramatic legal subplot, and yet there is practically zero action; everything occurs around, between and beneath the dialogue.
The precision of Stillman’s language bears its own essential resemblance to Austen, whose sentences may have been longer than most Stillman characters would ever dare speak but whose comical brilliance owed a lot to the sheer freewheeling expertise of the author’s sentence structure. Stillman’s words often seem to sound a lot more like Oscar Wilde, but the way he hones dialogue like an exact jigsaw of implied wants and blatant contradictions is pure Austen. Like Quentin Tarantino, Woody Allen and Aaron Sorkin, there can be an element of preciousness to Stillman’s recognisable (and quirky) stylisation – but his work somehow never even threatens to tip into self-parody, perhaps because, unique among these stylists, it feels genuinely naturalistic and sounds incredibly easy. It is never designed to announce itself.
The characters in question are essentially discussing their own problems and trying to place these in a wider context, as smart young people are wont to do. The ensemble of Last Days worry about how they fit into New York’s social system, specifically its class system, in a number of ways – is it worse to feel persecuted for being young, for being smart, or for being well-off? (Or even, perhaps most terrifyingly for some of them, to feel persecuted for having all these qualities while still lacking direction.) The comedy starts with the self-absorption inherent in these questions, but also the drama too, in a roundabout way.
Stillman loves to dramatise first-world problems in a way that’s legitimately compelling even as we roll our eyes (his descendants include Wes Anderson, Lena Dunham, Alex Ross Perry, and any number of mumblecore types). And this is achieved through those very discussions, the lengthy chatting about what’s going on and how the characters (claim to) feel about what’s going on. Only through conversation qua conversation do we get so invested – and via said conversation our investment is continually and wryly challenged.
Take for example one of the film’s more important exchanges, delivered by Chris Eigeman’s Des with hilarious, largely suppressed outrage. The group having been ejected from the club, Des – fired from his managerial position for allowing in his “yuppie scum” friends – rants: “‘Yuppie scum’? In college, before dropping out, I took a course in the propaganda uses of language; one objective is to deny other people’s humanity, or even right to exist.” Jimmy adds, as if tattling on the KKK, “In the men’s lounge someone scrawled ‘Kill yuppie scum’.” Des: “Do yuppies even exist? No one says ‘I am a yuppie’.”
He has a point. And yet these “young, upwardly-mobile professionals” (“Those are good things!”) are, in their own hypocritically insidious way, encroaching on a way of life that simply wasn’t meant for them; they are, in turn, destroying it. In fact, the film ends up delivering on its title as one of the final scenes follows part of the gang hanging around the Financial District lamenting that disco is suddenly dead, the bottom having dropped out of all disco-record sales. That’s when Josh, an attorney, gives an inspiring speech about the power of disco which actually includes the subtle noise of his own pocket-change jangling as he strikes the Saturday Night Fever pose. He may as well have just said “I am a yuppie” and acknowledged the obvious: that disco died the minute he and his friends got involved.
Of course, whatever societal silliness happens to bring about these so-called ‘last days of disco’ is so perpetual that the characters are victims as much as they are complicit (though their self-absorption is such that they rarely recognise what it is they are victims of). Even threatening, drug-running, relatively hardcore clubowner Bernie – he who has such profound contempt for the ‘yuppies’ – is essentially one of them, mentioning at one point his college education and even, in the film’s oddest exchange, sweating out a duplicitous Des by deconstructing his use of the past-perfect participle.
But then that’s just the real tragedy, and the reason we can end up sympathising – because at the end of the day, they are trying to become better. Aren’t we all complicit in some injustice or another without being able to change this? Stillman’s universe is a cynical one, but it is not without its own sense of empathy, a sort of coded yearning that, though expressed through layers of detached, ironical anthropology, reveals so many unanswerable questions about the nature of people, relationships and power as to constitute a confession that even the author, this grand observer and critic, is simply confused by it all. As confused as the characters; as confused as us. In short, the style may come across as smug and self-satisfied – Stillman, clearly, is anything but.