Set in a London house, taking place in real time (a mere 71 minutes) 'The Party' is a short sharp comedy of manners – a riotous romp that deftly skewers an entire political class and current state of the nation. Wearing its serious intent lightly, it is the latest film from Sally Potter who wrote, produced and directed.
Potter's films have explored everything from gender politics to immigration, celebrity culture to the cold war ('Orlando', 'The Tango Lesson,' 'Rage', 'Ginger and Rosa'). Joining an established British tradition of political critique disguised as comedy, her latest low-budget film was shot entirely in a studio over just two weeks, and the excellent cast, who clearly relish their roles, were all paid the same fee.
It is the female characters who make the running and carry the verbal wit. The fearless writer-director is often misunderstood, especially in Britain, where the humorous side of her films is frequently missed. 'The Party' is unmistakably a farce. It is also a cinematic musical which excels in the expressive use of music and gleefully exploits cinema's complex relationship with the theatre. This is apparent in the names of characters (even the film's title is a nod to Mike Leigh's 'Abigail's Party') but also, and more surreptitiously, through carefully plotted camera angles and imaginative choreography.
Thus characters may be positioned on-screen in ways that recall players on a stage: one gorgeous frame, shot from below, almost Ozu-like, captures the main players, motionless, like statues tastefully arranged in Janet's living room – as if beckoning us to look closely. But it is a film and could only be a film. Shot in crisp black and white (only possible with film) it is briskly executed, framed and edited to produce a cheeky deconstruction of British politics through the artful stripping down of characters at a dinner party gone gloriously wrong.
The characters are types – the politician, the academic, the financier, the materialist, the cynic – designed to probe how people behave in ways that contradict their espoused principles (which are themselves frequently in conflict or self-serving). The friends at this party forever debate whether principles should be compromised or sacrificed in order to gain power. The 'party' here clearly refers to both 'dinner' and 'Labour'.
Potter wrote her script in the run-up to the 2015 election and filmed it during the Brexit referendum. The film's location is the London home of Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) and her classical historian husband Bill (Timothy Spall) whose book on the Roman empire, 'Reason, Roads and Religion,' is glimpsed on the laden bookshelves. Janet has just been made shadow minister of health and friends are coming round to celebrate. The first frame is filled with a lion's head door-knocker. The camera pans out to show Janet as she opens the door, looking wild-haired and frazzled. The film's opening track strikes up: barely audible at first, it is a version of Hubert Parry's score for 'Jerusalem', re-worked by Potter and Fred Firth to sound plangently unfamiliar. We are being cued to listen carefully.
The screen goes black and we are taken 70 minutes back in time as the first guests arrive. Janet is busy in the kitchen, preparing vol au vents (which burn in the background for much of the film) and calmly taking congratulatory phone calls (including from a secret lover) while Bill sits drinking, staring morosely into space and listening to music. From now on, the film's music comes from the records Bill feeds into the gramophone, starting with Bo Diddley's 'I am a Man,' followed by a medley of blues, rock, reggae and tango – a brilliant soundtrack of iconic African-American, Latin American and Caribbean sound that signals Bill's past right-on-ness and, perhaps, what is missing from this
party (and Party).
The first to arrive is Janet's best friend, disillusioned former activist April, played with brio by Patricia Clarkson, accompanied by her estranged German life-coach/healer partner Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) whose vapid clichés incite April's venom: 'Scratch an aromatherapist and you find a fascist,' she hisses. 'You already look almost ministerial,' she greets Janet, 'in a postmodern, post-post feminist kind of way,' signalling that this farce will be unafraid of challenging intellectual as well as political fads.
Next up is women's studies professor Martha (the name of a key player in Edward Albee's play, 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'). Described by April as 'a first class lesbian with a second class brain,' Martha arrives with her pregnant partner (and 'Master Chef' contender) Jinny. Their arguments touch on current issues around gender, same-sex marriage and emotional labour.
Investment banker Tom (Cillian Murphy) follows. Wearing a sharp Prada suit, Tom is the husband of Janet's colleague, Marianne. She will come later, he assures his host. All await Marianne's arrival for the entire course of the film (shades of Samuel Becket's 'Waiting for Godot'). Twitching and sweating, Tom shuts himself in the bathroom, snorts coke and hides a gun. It soon becomes clear that this quickly disintegrating group of supposedly enlightened friends is replete with secrets and lies. Janet wails, 'But I believe in peace and reconciliation,' as she punches her husband on learning of his betrayal.
Alongside such personal meltdowns are several battles of principle – between Bruno Ganz's vacuously optimistic healer and his caustic wife who believes 'democracy is finished'; between Cillian Murphy's city wide-boy and his hosts who criticise him for how he makes his money and are in turn rebuked for their own comfortable wealth; and between the lesbian couple who have very different notions of feminism.
Beneath the clever arguments there are repeated reminders of the limits of logic and rationality that are set by the body and its frailties, such as Bill's sudden medical revelation, Jinny's pregnancy and Tom's coked-up agitation. 'The Party' is full of cheeky plot twists and telling details, as when a totally wired Tom pushes Bill, thinks he may have killed him, and in a panic, grabs a record to rouse him. It is Dido's 'Lament', Henry Purcell's guaranteed tearjerker. Meanwhile, Janet has locked herself in the bathroom and April is advising her through a locked door: 'I adore you Janet. But if you're going to run this country, you'll have to do something.' 'What?' asks Janet. 'You'll have to do something about your hair.' Janet persists, 'I want you to be truthful to me, we're all in disguise.' April retorts: 'Well, it hasn't worked for your party for a while and it won't for you.'
In the garden, music faintly audible there, Martha and Jinny discuss Jinny's multiple pregnancy. Learning of a heterosexual encounter in Martha's past dismays Jinny: 'You've had a man
inside you.' April, overhearing, intercedes: 'It sounds like you might have three little men inside you
Cinematographer Alex Rodionov combines elegantly formal compositions of the actors' bodies within the space of the house with almost balletic hand-held camera movements that capture in close-up the different players as they move around with increasing frequency. These carefully choreographed sequences benefit from Potter's background in music, dance choreography and performance art, and from her sense that life, like live performance, is always in danger of collapsing into chaos. 'The Party' delivers its critical challenge with the verve of a musician.
When we see the front door open for the second time, we now know it is for the final guest and we know, too, why Janet looked so out of sorts when we first saw her. The screen goes black again. The final track begins: 'Emancipación', composed by Alfredo Bevilacqua on the occasion of Chile's centenary as a republic, played by tango arranger Osvaldo Pugliese. At this point we need to remember that Marianne, the absent presence of the film so far, who has seduced and/or betrayed most of the film's characters, is, as classical scholars like Bill know, the goddess of liberty.
Also missing from this party/Party – as the film's musical score has been insisting – is the Rest of the World, specifically, suggests Sophie Mayer in Sight and Sound, the history of civil rights and postcolonial struggle that were once central to the British left's project. The music chosen by Potter offers a counterpoint to the characters we meet and the talk we witness.
The film's stark black and white palette also points up the whiteness of the characters. Given what happened next – Brexit and the ascent of Jeremy Corbyn – Potter's 71-minute film is emblematic of how personal and political certainties can dissolve in an instant. A filmmaker who is acutely aware of shifting political agendas and possibilities, Potter has always tried to devise the best way formally to represent life as she finds it at any specific moment. 'The Party' is an absurd romp. And, as film critic Alistair Harkness says, these are absurd times. I hope that, like me, the final punchline leaves you laughing over the closing credits.
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