Sally Potter’s new film is a succinct dinner-party farce that, in terms of genre, represents something of a departure for the director. While Potter is perhaps best known for her early feminist films Orlando and The Gold Diggers, in The Party feminism is less guiding principle than it is the butt of numerous jokes. Neither the film’s premise nor its gags are particularly novel, but it avoids conventionality through its distinctive style and impressive ensemble cast, emerging as a pithy but pleasing satire of the contemporary bourgeoisie.
Kristen Scott-Thomas plays Janet, the host and subject of the eponymous party — an intimate get-together celebrating her recent appointment as minister for health. Janet is joined by her long-suffering husband Bill (Timothy Spall), who’s started drinking long before anyone arrives, her best-friend April (Patricia Clarkson), and the latter’s eccentric boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz). April’s biting wit makes short work of the other guests, and her expressions of admiration for Janet’s success are only a little undermined by her repeated disavowals of the entire institution of parliamentary politics. Also present are Bill’s friend Martha (Cherry Jones) and her pregnant wife Jinny (Emily Mortimer). Martha is an academic whose comically niche area of expertise is something like ‘feminist gender deconstruction in American dystopianisms’, and she is not a little dismayed by the fact that all three of her wife’s IVF triplets are going to be boys. Arriving a little late, and with the apologies of his absent wife, is the well-heeled investment banker Tom (Cillian Murphy). “Impossibly handsome” but curiously sweaty, Tom either has an irritable bowel or that other affliction that sends men in his line of work on frequent trips to the bathroom. He arrives at the party armed with a secret, and with something else besides.
Potter’s farce presents a collection of bourgeois caricatures rather than fully fleshed-out characters, and with a running time of just 71 minutes, there is relatively little offered in the way of background information. The characters are nonetheless given a tremendous amount of life in a series of excellent performances. Patricia Clarkson displays perfect comic timing as the sardonic April, and Cillian Murphy’s frenetic physicality lends a vulnerability to Tom that is rather unexpected. But Potter’s bare minimum approach runs into difficulties when it comes to Spall’s Bill; the plot depends on his being a charismatic professor, but this a side of his character the viewer never gets to see.
Shot in high contrast black and white by Aleksei Rodionov, The Party is visually arresting. But this is an aesthetic decision that might also further Potter’s satiric agenda, as it seems designed to lure an audience made up of exactly the bourgie types that the film satirises. Many of Potter’s stylistic choices reveal her theatrical roots. While The Party’s dramatic unity of time and place has obvious parallels with a one-act play, there are a number of more subtle similarities. The shots that centre around Bill as he sits in the living room often appear to abandon any sense of verisimilitude, staggering the actors in space as though they were performing on stage. And at one point Janet watches Martha and Jinny from the kitchen window as they conduct an argument that has the look of a ‘rhubarb rhubarb’ conversation played out in the background of a theatrical performance.
In most dinner-party murder movies — think Rope or Gosford Park — the die is cast and the crime committed quite early in the piece. By contrast, in The Party the question of whether animosities will escalate into murder is a point of tension that serves both comedic and narrative ends. The celebrations are cut short by a series of escalating announcements, which also serve as an amusing display of self-centred story-topping, and as various guests are pushed to the point of violence, the plot turns on who and what might make them cross that line.
In addition to its obvious meaning, the film’s title appears to carry certain political implications. Except for Tom, the guests seem to sit somewhere on the ideological left, and Bill causes quite a stir by admitting that he visited a private Harley-street specialist — a betrayal of the public health system that might jeopardise Janet’s position. With this in mind, The Party’s satire serves as critique of an increasingly comfortable and complacent left wing, one that has recently received rude shocks in the form of Trump’s election and the triumph of Brexit. But while Potter makes unapologetic fun of the privileged, over-educated elite represented by the guests, her satire never feels all that vitriolic; she seems to be taking aim at this group’s excesses and hypocrisies, rather than their underlying values. The guests are bad enough that the party could never be anything but awful, yet they do have some redeeming qualities — so much so that you may even find yourself rooting for a few of them by the end.