English writer-director Sally Potter is a rare talent, a feminist who is also a first-rate satirist, aiming her barbs not only at male dominance in politics and society, but at those ostensibly resisting that reality: radicals, intellectuals, and feminism itself. She’s been involved in dance, theater, and performance art as well as film; and has succeeded in maintaining complete independence as an artist for close to fifty years. Her films have been few and far between, but every film Potter makes is interesting and unusual, and her latest is a sly variation on the dinner party-gone-bad genre, featuring great actors brandishing wicked dialogue—it’s called simply The Party.
It opens with Janet, played by Kristen Scott-Thomas, making dinner for guests while fielding phone calls congratulating her on a great achievement: she’s been appointed a minister of the British government, a victory not only for her, but for the progressive opposition party of which she is a prominent member. In the living room is her husband Bill, played by Timothy Spall, who is acting quite strange, putting various records on the turntable, drinking wine, but otherwise glassy-eyed and almost catatonic. The invited guests soon arrive—first there is April, played by Patricia Clarkson, an acid-tongued cynic showing obvious contempt for the man she shows up with, her boyfriend Gottfried, a New Age thinker and proponent of alternative healing played by Bruno Ganz. Later there is a lesbian couple, Martha and Jinny, played by Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer respectively. Jinny has just discovered that her attempts at medical conception have succeeded—she’s pregnant with triplets. Finally, there is Tom, played by Cillian Murphy, a manic, sweating, coke-snorting mess who supposedly works in “finance.” The celebration of Janet’s triumph has barely begun before the guests melt down in revelations of explosive secrets and lies.
These characters are exaggerations, over-the-top and theatrical, all in a good way, I think. Potter has taken the old dinner party plot and reduced it to some basic elements while updating it to feature a sense of the disaster which modern life is now presenting to us as the new reality. Clarkson gets some of the funniest lines, reflecting her bitter rejection of all hope to be gained from politics or social action—her character April is really an awful person who is always willing to render an insult when silence would be better. When Martha, for instance, reminds her mid-argument that she is a professor in “domestic labor, gender differentiation and American utopianism,” April calls her “a first-class lesbian and a second-rate thinker.” Unexpectedly amusing is Bruno Ganz’s pretentious guru type. When Gottfried says that western medicine is voodoo, or tells the other men that they must free themselves from negative female energy, his soft German-accented purr couldn’t help but make me giggle.
Anchoring it all, though, is Kristen Scott-Thomas as the hostess, expertly balancing a kind of heroic stoicism with barely contained hysteria. I’ve really missed Kristen Scott-Thomas, a wonderful actress who stopped making films in America because they stopped offering her decent roles. Here she’s a joy to watch throughout, and in fact the whole troupe is delightful, bouncing off each other with obvious glee.
The themes do become political, in that left wing or progressive views of life are aired out somewhat, in a light satiric manner. It’s a play, really, but there is enough movement between rooms to keep you alert.
The Party has one old-fashioned virtue as well: modesty. It’s shot in sharp black-and-white, and Potter doesn’t try to stretch things out—the picture comes in at a brisk 71 minutes, which I think is refreshing. Of course, those who like everything spectacular or flashy can stay away. If you’re looking for meanings, I will say that the difference between the way people talk and the way they act is especially funny in the case of affluent folks who like to think of themselves as enlightened. In that respect in particular, The Party is merciless.