In a recent Village Voice interview, director Whit Stillman discussed the incongruous packaging for early home-video versions of his 1990 indie cult-hit Metropolitan. The art featured what looked like the brink of an upper-crust orgy: a room full of attractive young folks laughing and unbuttoning their formalwear, with one woman already down to her bra. Anyone who rented it expecting a louche romp got instead a modest, dry, hyperarticulate Manhattan-set comedy focused on middle-class young-adult identity struggles and social mores and couplings. Fast forward to 1998 and the release of his third film, The Last Days of Disco, which was studio-hyped by one-sheet art featuring slinky young women (Kate Beckinsale and Chloe Sevigny) dancing amid neon nightclub haze. Once again, those who paid their money got a modest, dry, hyperarticulate Manhattan-set comedy focused on middle-class young-adult identity struggles and social mores and couplings, albeit with a little dancing, drugs, and nudity on the side. Stillman fans lapped it up, but as the filmmaker notes in the VV piece, "people looking for a dirty disco movie" were "terribly disappointed."
The first-ever DVD release of The Last Days of Disco (Criterion Collection) boasts a Deco-ish Pierre Le Tan illustration that more closely reflects, even celebrates, the New Yorker-fiction-come-to-life feel of Stillman's work. The film inside the packaging is still a bit incongruous, however.
Disco seems an unlikely subject for a filmmaker whose two previous films brought to mind a WASP Woody Allen, but the "disco" of the title is not the disco of the provinces, or even the outer boroughs. LDD is set largely at an unnamed club meant to stand in for legendary nightlife mecca Studio 54, where everybody wanted to be in 1980, including fresh-out-of-college Manhattanites starting their first career jobs. Getting past the doorman is tough, though—a shrewd tweak on the self-consciously unformed identities of sweet publishing drone Alice (Sevigny), her old college pal/co-worker Charlotte (Beckinsale), and their various fellow proto-yuppies, including secretly caddish Tom (Robert Sean Leonard), hustling Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), and sweet, troubled Josh (Matt Keeslar). Alice isn't sure what she's looking for in a guy, which leads to her trying out a few, advised poorly (but hilariously) by frenemy Charlotte. She winds up with openly caddish Des (Stillman regular Chris Eigeman), who manages the club when he's not womanizing and hoovering up cocaine.
The faint whiff of an actual plot here is actually one of the film's weak points: Des' bosses are skimming and prosecutor Josh's office is investigating and Des is stuck in the middle and who cares? Finding the right person to be, and to be with, is far more interesting as Sevigny and Beckinsale (neither ever again much better or more appealing than they are here) talk and dance and talk some more and discretely pair off. While the writer/director's core aesthetic shines through the lights and sequins, LDD winds up feeling a bit muddled and baggy. But the best moments here—a scene in which Alice plays dumber and faster to ease a seduction, a bit in which Des ponders Shakespeare's "to thine own self be true" in regard to his not-so-pleasant self—make it seem a true shame that Stillman hasn't made a film since. Plus someone needs to put the bracingly snappish Eigeman back to work.
If The Last Days of Disco is New Yorker fiction, then documentary Valentino: The Last Emperor (Phase 4) is a Vanity Fair spread. Filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer followed iconic fashion designer Valentino Garavani for two years leading up to a 2007 celebration of his 45 years as the man who put Italian fashion on the map and the couturier to style icons such as Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. The cycle of designing and showing collections, the tensions of his business dealings, and the frequently raised question of if and when the septuagenarian plans to retire help lend a very mild forward momentum to the film, but it functions best as a slice of life—and what a life. With his many luxurious homes, private jet flights, bustling servants, and fleet of pugs, this tiny orange Italian man lives like a modern sun king. Tyrnauer's camera captures the designer at work, making the subtle decisions and adjustments that make a dress fetch $20,000 rather than a 10th of that, but also his embodiment of the aspirational glamour that fuels sales of ready-to-wear and accessories, which is what pays for everything. Lifestyle porn hardly gets more lavish or canny than this.
Valentino is humanized by the film's depiction of his relationship with Giancarlo Giammetti, his partner in life and business for nearly 50 years, but perhaps the most interesting secondary character is tall, bearded Michael Kelly, Valentino's majordomo. It's his job to make sure that Valentino enjoys fresh flowers, the right temperature, and clean drapes in all his abodes; while the designer entertains celebrities with his typical élan, Kelly races around putting out fires and sweating. A DVD featurette called "The Perfect Life" focuses mostly on the endless work Kelly does to insure that perfection. Now that's a life that would make a good movie.