The Party is a great example of form and style in concert, merged into a single entity that lives on screen in a way all films aspire to but rarely accomplish.
No two films by Sally Potter are exactly alike. For more than four decades, the British director has built a truly fascinating filmography, comprised of experimental shorts, narrative features and just about everything else in between. From the fourth-wall breaking classic Orlando (1992) to the recent coming-of-age drama Ginger & Rosa (2012), her work not only varies in terms of theme and feel, but also form and construction. But in watching her latest film, The Party—a bitterly funny black-and-white satire about a group of old friends whose dinner gathering quickly unravels amid a series of dramatic revelations—you can easily sense Potter’s presence throughout, particularly her unique sense of empathy and compassion. The film pokes fun at its characters but doesn’t resort to judgement or caricature; it’s deeply political but never edifying or didactic. Without sacrificing anything in the way of ideas or philosophy, Potter delivers what might be her mostly effortlessly enjoyable film to date, a comical chiaroscuro whose brevity belies its serious weight.
Some of Potter’s most prevailing formal influences include live theater and silent cinema, and both feature prominently throughout The Party. Effectively a chamber drama, the film unfolds over the course of a single evening at the home of Janet (Kristen Scott Thompson), the recently named head of the British National Health Service. Throughout the film, Potter favors dramatic closeups and canted angles, the kind you’d find in silent European movies and American cinema in the era just before the emergence of talkies. The approach gives dynamic representation to the rest of characters, including Janet’s grumpy and distant husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), who quietly nurses a bottle of wine in the living room while she bustles around the kitchen, preparing a celebratory meal and fielding congratulatory calls from colleagues, well-wishers and, most importantly, her secret lover, who has her quietly giggling and blowing kisses over the phone.
All the while, Janet’s friends are pouring into her posh townhouse: The take-no-bullshit April (Patricia Clarkson), her oldest friend and political sparring partner, shows up first, alongside her lover, the smugly spiritualistic Gottfried (Bruno Ganz); next is gender studies professor Martha (Cherry Jones), whose fiercely feminist and very pregnant wife Jinny (Emily Mortimer) arrives shortly thereafter, bearing the news from her most recent sonogram that she’s to have triplets; and finally, the yuppie financial planner Tom (Cillian Murphy) stumbles through the door, all bug-eyed and sweaty, his wife mysteriously absent. In a stroke of narrative mastery, Potter takes just 71 scant minutes to establish, challenge and unravel each characters’ personal history and unique relationship to one another. Each member of her expert cast—the performances are uniformly excellent—seems to have arrived at their characters fully formed. The dialogue and interpersonal dynamics sizzle, much as they would during a particularly charged stage performance, but they also have considerable cinematic weight thanks to the film’s luscious monochrome cinematography.
As the characters trade in sarcastic bon mots and dramatic confessions, Potter weaves in ideas surrounding gender, feminism, capitalism, and the importance of political engagement in western society post-Brexit and post-Trump. The complicated bonds that tie these people together are in some ways remnants of an ineffectual counterculture, but the film isn’t quite so cynical as to completely renounce the politics of the counterculture itself. Rather, The Party illustrates how prevailing social attitudes can be reclaimed and co-opted, especially when tied to lagging political commitment. “Pretending hasn’t worked for your party in a while,” April tells Janet, and she could be referring to either her political party or her disaster of a dinner gathering. Potter refuses to flatter any of the ideological or social viewpoints tossed about by the characters. Everyone in the film comes across as varying levels of absurd, which isn’t always effective satire—Potter seems to hedge her bets around certain issues and comes across as completely toothless regarding others—but nevertheless creates a symphonic sort of ensemble characterization.
But searching for subtext or metaphor in The Party tends to negate its many pleasures. Agile and exhilarating, the film is best appreciated as a dizzying, in-the-moment comedy, starting slow and building to a climactic sequence that functions as a punchline but feels more like a mic drop. Clarkson gets the film’s choicest lines, which she delivers with tremendous attitude and dry wit, while Spall functions as a sort of audience surrogate before casually centering himself within the entire conflict, a tricky turn of character ideally reserved for someone with his unique abilities. Potter’s films aren’t usually this light on their feet, but such nimbleness belies her finely tuned approach. The Party is a great example of form and style in concert, merged into a single entity that lives on screen in a way all films aspire to but rarely accomplish.