The Criterion Collection has come to celebrate the return of Whit Stillman, whose latest feature Damsels in Distress was his first in over a decade, by releasing two of his earlier films on Blu-ray: 1990’s Metropolitan, and 1998’s The Last Days of Disco. Both are great films, and showcase one of the great voices in independent cinema in the 90’s. We’re glad to have him back, and we’re happy to have these two films on Blu-ray. Our reviews follow after the jump.
Even in 1990, Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan was a picture out of its time. In following the then-dying preppy scene (here coined the “Upper Haute Bourgeois”) and the droll parties they throw, it was a portrait of crumbling aristocracy, but done in a way that showed how human these people are. Ironically, it’s arguable that debutante culture has had a renewed resurgence in the mainstream due to the antics of such uselessly famous children of the rich like the Hilton sisters and their brood. But their sort of trashy infamy has little to do with the intellectual crowd assayed in Metropolitan, where the members may do drugs and have sex with each other, but also talk at length about socialism (a word one suspects Kim Kardashian would be unable to define).
Led in some ways by Nick Smith (Chris Eigeman), they gather around Sally Fowler (Dylan Hundley), whose house provides the de facto base camp for their parties, and where the group drinks and argues about politics and literature. Their clan is enlarged by the inclusion of Tom Townsend (Edward Clements), who is invited in because he was wearing a tux (rented) and was once a member of their circle before his parents’ divorce. He joins their tribe but remains the outsider, getting closest to Nick and engaging in friendly banter with Audrey Roget (Carolyn Farina). Tom doesn’t know that Audrey’s been holding a candle for him for quite some time, but he remains oblivious — he still pines for his ex Serena Slocum (Elizabeth Thompson), while Audrey has a silent suitor in Charlie Black (Taylor Nichols).
Metropolitan was Whit Stillman’s debut feature, which he followed with 1994’s Barcelona and 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, and now 2012’s Damsels in Distress. In reviewing his biography, one gets a sense that all three films were derived from his own experiences, so perhaps he ran out of usable, interesting anecdotes from his life – Distress has similar conceits, but is more a redress of 1930’s woman’s pictures than the more grounded in reality approach of his earlier films. Stillman’s work in Metropolitan is some of the most nuanced and original his generation (the script for it was Academy-nominated for Best Original Screenplay), and it calls up an intelligence and wit missing from the majority of his contemporaries who survived the early ’90s Sundance boom.
Metropolitan shows a very elegant filmmaker, aping at times Woody Allen and Jane Austen (who’s name-checked throughout in a way that manages to be knowing without being too self-aware), an artist who understands a crumbling society that he also manages to make endearing in the face of its privilege. And, thankfully, it’s also a rather funny film with a gloved romance suitable to its Austen-based sensibilities.
Austen is also at the core of The Last Days of Disco, and shows that Stillman is one of the best writers for women. Chloe Sevingy stars as Alice, who is shown at the beginning getting into the big club – which is obviously modeled on Studio 54. She goes with Charlotte (Kate Beckinsdale), and there we see their web of friends. There’s Des (Chris Eigleman), who runs the club, but is constant trouble with the owner Bernie (David Thorton). There’s the accountant Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), who tries desperately to get his un-hip colleagues into the dance club, there’s the government agent Josh (Matt Keeslar), who spent some time in a nuthouse. There’s Tom (Robert Sean Leonard) who sleeps with Alice, but is on a break from his current relationship. Charlotte and Alice move in together with friend Holly (Tara Subkoff) and argue at work with Dan (Matthew Ross). They work at a publishing house as readers, and are basically told it’s safer to reject most things. Dan calls them out as children of privilege, but his class politics don’t stand up to their scrutiny, and he’s seduced by the call of disco (and Holly).
Alice has a fling with Tom, which blows up in her face, while Charlotte snipes at her in that passive-aggressive way of friends who also sort of hate each other. Charlotte starts seeing Jimmy, who Alice had something of a crush on, while Alice starts seeing Des. Des is a mess because the club makes more money than they know what to do with, and has a growing addiction to cocaine. On top of which, the club is being investigated by the treasury because of all the money and drugs coming into it, and Disco is facing a huge blacklash, which will eventually kill people’s interest in it.
The Last Days of Disco is arguably Stillman’s masterpiece as it incorporates everything he loves into one film, while deftly portraying characters with great inner lives. Sevingy has rarely had a role as good as this, and she’s brilliant as the lead. We see her navigate her way through love’s tricky situations as partners swap in and out like Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde. The ensemble cast is all excellent, and everyone knows how to deliver Stillman’s affected but purposeful dialogue. And the soundtrack is excellent, as everything bounces off the poppy music of the day. The film wasn’t all that well received in its day, but now it feels like one of the greats of that year.
Criterion presents Metropolitan in widescreen transfer (1.66:1) with its original monaural soundtrack (DD 1.0). Extras include a commentary by Stillman, editor Christopher Tellefsen, and stars Christopher Eigeman and Taylor Nichols. There’s also outtakes (9 min.), and a memorial to line producer Brian Greenbaum (1 min.), as well as alternate casting clips with Troma’s Lloyd Kaufman as the record producer (2 min.) and Will Kempe (who was moved to another role) as Nick Smith. The theatrical trailer is also included.
The Last Days of Disco is presented in widescreen (1.78:1) and in a newly mastered DTS-HD 5.1 Master audio soundtrack. Picture and sound are excellent on this one. The film comes with a commentary by Stillman, Chris Eigeman and Chloë Sevigny that’s very enjoyable, and four deleted scenes (8 min.). Also included is ‘From the Novel’ (17 min.), which is from Stillman’s own novelization of the film, and includes things that were never in the movie (he wrote it after the film was released. There’s a period featurette (6 min.), a Still Gallery and the film’s trailer.