We all know that university isn’t necessarily the best time of your life, but how seriously should we take the warning that the years that follow might be the worst? Few films capture this malaise like Whit Stillman’s The Last Days of Disco – Alexa Margorian takes us through her own post-graduation fears and realisations with the film.
A few summers ago, when I was still studying at university, I spent four months working in HR at a bank. One of my coworkers who was a handful of years older than me confided that the year after she graduated was the hardest year of her life. At the time, I found this a little hard to believe. As someone who had grown increasingly disillusioned with school as an intellectual pursuit (I preferred to think of it more as a means to an end), and who loves to spend money luxuriously, the idea that life after graduating was somehow worse than the onslaught of impossible practice problems and indifferent-to-borderline-sinister professors left me dubious of her statement’s veracity. As the first anniversary of my own graduation approaches, I now know exactly what she meant.
Without the structures that school provides – a concrete definition of success, a social hierarchy, expectations of where to live and where to hang out – I’ve been overwhelmed with insecurity and loneliness only amplified by the isolation of the ongoing pandemic. As my final semester of university waned down, I watched The Last Days of Disco, Whit Stillman’s 1998 gem, for the first time. Though on the surface, this is a film about music, love, and the pursuit of fun, at its heart it is a story about two young women stumbling to find their way in adult life. Recent Hampshire College graduates Alice Kinnon (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte Pingress (Kate Beckinsale) move to New York City as they’ve both found assistant jobs at a small publishing house simply known as The Company. Most of the action takes place at The Club, an ultra-exclusive hotspot where Chic, Diana Ross, and Cheryl Lynn blast from the speakers while patrons drink vodka tonics with abandon.
It’s obvious from the start that Alice and Charlotte’s friendship is one of convenience. “You didn’t have much of a social life there,” Charlotte tells Alice about their time at Hampshire during one of their first exchanges. Pushed together by circumstance, even Alice is doubtful of their arrangement. “It’s not just that we don’t know each other well, I’m not even sure we really like each other,” she says when contemplating their imminent plans to move in together. And Charlotte’s behaviour is appalling; she’s old enough to think she knows everything, but too young to prove it. When she reveals that Alice and their roommate Holly are the first female friends she’s ever had, everything clicks. Alice and Charlotte are foils of one another; Alice is far too timid to announce what she wants, while Charlotte’s self-regard blinds her from reality. Though Charlotte’s harsh criticism is viewed through a comedic lens – it’s hard not to laugh at her deducing out loud that Alice has an STI because she orders a Coke instead of a cocktail at The Club – but one can only imagine how grating she would be in real life. It isn’t long before Alice wants out of their lease, and the two spend the rest of the movie despising their living situation.
The girls primarily hang out with these older men they know from some vague, WASPy connections – Kate Preston’s Labour Day barbecue in the Hamptons is mentioned numerous times as a catalyst for a majority of these relationships. Though far more experienced than the recent graduates, these men aren’t any better equipped for life than the women are. There’s Jimmy Steinway (Sean Astin), an ad agent whose sole interest is to get his clients into The Club. Chris Eigeman’s Des McGrath is a comic tour de force, playing one of The Club’s smooth-talking managers who tells women he’s gay when he wants to dump them. Next, we have two lawyers: Tom Platt (Robert Sean Leonard), a staunch environmentalist who gives Alice both gonorrhoea and herpes when he takes her virginity while he’s on a break from his college girlfriend; Josh Neff, a district attorney with bipolar disorder who harbours a long-standing crush on Alice. Finally, there’s Departmental Dan, Alice and Charlotte’s leftist, union-organising colleague at The Company who views them with a mix of disdain and envy. I list these characters in detail because that’s part of the movie’s charm. Each of Stillman’s players is filled in with exactitude, given a breath of life that mimics reality – everyone knows a Jimmy (“weak and indecisive, and unemployed”, his words, not mine!), and I am sure everyone knows a Tom, a man who thinks he’s a “nice guy” when he’s actually just a fucking menace.
There is no rosy sentimentality to any of these relationships. Alice laments the disconnect between her and men in college, saying, “Hampshire guys were jerks, hippie-dippie suburbanites with all this hair.” There’s an implication that the men they’ll meet now, outside of the confines of collegiate camaraderie, will live up to their expectations of true romance. But that proves to be far from the case. Sure, these older men may not have long hair or a particularly laid-back attitude, but whether they’ve grown out of being jerks since college is a far more questionable premise.
Their blunders are not only social and romantic, but they also extend to their professional life. Salaries are deviously low; they barely make enough to pay rent for their ghastly railroad apartment on the outskirts of the Upper East Side. But it’s their first job out of college, so there’s an unspoken suggestion that they should simply be grateful for what they have – though what they have is an assistant job that they may be stuck in indefinitely unless they publish a bestseller. That sounds simple enough, yet with anything evaluated in the court of public opinion, determining what should versus what will be a bestseller may be damn near impossible. Dan puts this all quite plainly: “We were exploited, but they were nice about it.”
Schadenfreude is the pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune. Maybe it’s a little twisted that I derive such a sincere comfort watching Alice and Charlotte fail over and over again, failing at work, at friendship, at love. You’d think that a movie that chronicles such misfortunes would ultimately be depressing, too close for comfort, but Stillman affects these occurrences with a levity that brightens his film so that the relatability of his characters’ situations aren’t demoralising, rather quite uplifting.
The middling year after school ends is a mystery, a time rarely trodden in media. I’ve seen countless retellings of high school stories on TV, and film has dedicated itself to the female dilemma of turning 30, but the era in-between is often glossed over and largely forgotten. This period of intense personal growth, when you’re essentially left to flounder alone, is rife with material but very few have mined this chapter with a discerning eye. “That’s one of the great things about getting out of college and into the real world; how experience changes and improves your views,” Charlotte says as the group convenes in a booth at the Club. Witnessing Charlotte torment Alice and the others with her brashness, you wonder whether her views have changed for better or worse. Charlotte frequently changes her behaviour, but by the end of the film, she’s the same as she ever was. The Last Days of Disco captures the frustration of wanting more and knowing what you’re capable of, but being too young and inexperienced to see it through. Some, like Alice, grow and flourish, while others, like Charlotte, remain stuck – but what draws them together is that they’re all clamouring for change.