The Party, renegade Briton Sally Potter’s first film in six years, is shot in a flat and unpretty black-and-white — no luminous chiaroscuro here. Rather, it’s a harsh and dressed-down cheapie, populated by actors whose drooping faces and worry lines betray minimal makeup. It reflects of a time in movie history when directors eschewed color for economy, not artistry.
Shot over two weeks in a studio set in West London, this acrid, play-like comedy is the latest revolt against a lily-white power structure — a low-key follow-up to more gonzo satires like Get Out, Mother! and The Square. Potter’s version is a pitiless Buñuelian coal-raking that conjures one of the master’s films in particular: The Exterminating Angel.
In that viciously black comedy from 1962, a gaggle of aristocrats gathers for an elite dinner party only to find that they’re unable to leave the estate, inevitably succumbing to starvation, death, suicide and rioting. There are no such metaphysical impediments in The Party, but the effect is similar. It’s about an upper-crust dinner gathering gone terribly awry, full of all manner of insults, slaps, choking, vomiting and brandished firearms, and it’s a legitimate question as to why nobody ever bails when it’s clear the ship is sinking, and fast.
It should have been a festive celebration among friends. Host Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) has just been appointed minister of health for the British government, validating years of toil in the political muck. She is to be toasted alongside her closest friend April (Patricia Clarkson), an anarchistic misanthrope with a rapier tongue; April’s partner Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), a New Age thinker given to spouting vacuous aphorisms; Martha and Jinny (Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer), a lesbian couple with major news to share; and Tom (Cillian Murphy), the party’s manic wild card, who appears without his spouse, and concealing a handgun and cocaine.
Janet is married to Bill, played by Timothy Spall, whose melting visage, glazed eyes and slumped posture suggests a stroke victim in recovery — to which Janet, preoccupied with a lover’s texts and with producing the perfect canapés, seems willfully oblivious. Drowning out the chatter with obtrusively loud jazz and samba records, Bill introduces himself to Gottfried thusly: “I’m Bill. I think. Or at least I used to be.”
Revelations spill forth before food can be served. There are cancer diagnoses explained, affairs admitted, pregnancies announced. There is little support from this gang of self-absorbed intellectuals. When Jinny announces she’s expecting triplets, April retorts, “Was that a boast or a cry for help?” With the exception of the cryptic friendship between April and Janet, it’s unclear why any of these people would want to share oxygen with each other. As in Ionesco or Buñuel, we’re just supposed to go with it.
Nor should we expect three-dimensional characters to emerge. Potter’s cast dutifully, and humorously, embodies evergreen archetypes, from Murphy’s well-coiffed, well-dressed, go-go financial executive to Cherry Jones’ post-feminist professor teaching an esoteric class in “domestic labor gender differentiation in American utopianism.” Ganz’s Gottfried, a parody of a soft-spoken guru, forgoes the couch to sit on the floor in a namaste pose, to which April exclaims, “Please tell me you’re not meditating, Gottfried; pull yourself together!”
As the sardonic pulse of this movie’s withered ensemble, Clarkson is gifted with many such lines; she’s most responsible for delivering the film’s tart, arresting wit. The Party is indeed a highly quotable movie, even if, by design, it it isn’t much to look at.
The filming of The Party happened to coincide with the disastrous Brexit vote, and Potter told The Hollywood Reporter that “half the crew and cast turned up weeping that morning as we found out the result.” She insists that she included anti-Brexit sympathies in the final product, from soundtrack choices to the inherent politics of her screenplay. But for an American audience, contemporaneous rage against the machine is difficult to discern, unlike her post-9/11 think piece Yes, or her stylized feminist treatise, Orlando.
By comparison, The Party, despite its tonal purity and anti-consumerist aesthetics, may not be radical or profound enough for Potter’s most experimental loyalists. In age of ascendant nationalism and #MeToo, her scathing barbs seem directed at yesterday’s targets.
THE PARTY. Director: Sally Potter; Cast: Kristin Scott Thomas, Patricia Clarkson, Timothy Spall, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy; Distributor: Roadside Attractions; Rating: R; Opens: Friday at Downtown at the Gardens Palm 16, Movies of Delray, Regal Shadowood 16 and Cinemark Palace 20