Long underrated (even if her pithy, experimental, and openly political movies are hardly conceived as crowd-pleasers), writer/director Sally Potter deserves a resurgence. ‘The Party’ may not be her best work, but it shows what she’s capable of even with meager resources.
Potter’s work in films like ‘Orlando‘, ‘Yes’, and ‘The Tango Lesson’ established her as a fierce and feminist filmmaker, long before such things were even remotely trendy. In fact, she often balked at being labeled that second “f” word for fear of being derided and dismissed.
Essentially a play made for the screen, ‘The Party’ is a contained character study unfolding almost entirely within the confines of a single apartment. That’s not just a matter of budget; it’s also a deliberate device to wring extra tension and embarrassment out of the fact that no one can leave. Manners are of course crucial to British cringe comedy.
The party in question is for Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas), a little gathering of her nearest and dearest to celebrate her recent promotion to Shadow Minister for Health. The first guests to arrive are her best friend April (Patricia Clarkson) and her aroma therapist soon-to-be-ex-husband Gottfried (Bruno Ganz). Next up comes the cold and pretentious academic Martha (Cherry Jones) along with her wife Jinny (Emily Mortimer), who’s expecting triplets. The next guest is the perpetually sweaty Tom (Cillian Murphy), who arrives unexpectedly solo and keeps popping into the bathroom to do coke and check out his gun. You know what they say about introducing a gun in the first act of a play, right? Well, that better happen quick because Janet’s husband kicks off this fun gathering by announcing that he’s dying anyway.
That’s quite a bit going on, convolutedly so. It might be a problem were it not for the fact that Potter’s script is deliberately arch and theatrical. These aren’t real people, just facsimiles of real people. Dialogue is impossibly punchy. Actions carry heightened gravitas. It very deliberately resembles an overwritten play in an overwritten way. It’s even shot in black-and-white to push things one extra layer away from reality. The purpose of Potter’s stylish little soufflé is to criticize people so lost in their big heads and little worlds that they have no sense of reality anymore. In a story filled with dark revelations and shocking twists, the characters barely seem able to respond or comprehend their mountain of problems. Instead, they shift into making it all about academic debate about philosophical issues that circle the problems at hand without actually touching on them. That’s a very specific societal critique that would be easy to dismiss were it not true.
Of course, the audience that truth will speak to is very small. It’s also an audience comprised almost exclusively of the very people whom the filmmaker is satirizing and slaying. So, that’s amusing. The film is too. It’s very wry and clever in an “Ah yes, I too have read that” kind of way – sometimes a bit too much. The jokes never quite register laughs in the way that they should. Perhaps the barbs are too sharp or the verbiage too overwrought.
The cast makes a meal of it all, whether it be Patricia Clarkson ripping apart a room with her eyes as only she can, Timothy Small’s impeccable collection of tragic faces, or Kristin Scott Thomas’ prolonged breakdown that’s beautiful to behold in its control. They’re all wonderful. Others struggle (mostly Cillian Murphy, who does well playing the single note he’s given, but could have used more). The movie is a mixed bag.
Thankfully, when the final tallies of ‘The Party’ come through, the film has far more successes than failures. At 71 minutes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Watching intellectuals crumble over a bad dinner party may not be a particularly exciting genre. Credit is due to Sally Potter for finding a way to make a bleak movie about insufferable people so sharp and wise. Even if it’s not quite as funny as you want it to be and that remarkable cast feels somewhat wasted, the movie has plenty of wonderful ideas and scenes, enough to remind viewers why Potter’s presence has been much missed from filmmaking for so long.