In a small but well-appointed middle-class house, the host lies, not breathing, on the living room floor. The would-be murderer tries to choose the right music for resurrection. The adulterous hostess cries in the bathroom with a gun, while in the back garden a lesbian, pregnant with triplets, threatens to leave her wife. And the vol au vents are burned to charcoal nuggets. “This is not a very good situation,” understates the henpecked, new-agey German guest, and he’s right. But it is a very funny one, complete with whizzing one-liners and acid, self-annihilating observations about bourgeois hypocrisy and compromise. And before it can make even the remotest claim on importance, topical relevance, or even that much urgency, it’s over. It took 71 minutes to prove the truth of a sentence I never thought I’d write: Sally Potter sure knows how to ‘Party.’
Potter is, of course, the erratic British arthouse director whose back catalogue features as many misses as hits, though good luck finding any two people who’ll agree on exactly which films belong to which category. “Yes” was a weird experiment in iambic pentameter that was either admirably bold or wildly ill-conceived; “The Tango Lesson” was either piquantly self-aware or grandiloquently self-indulgent; 2012’s “Ginger and Rosa” was either rightly overlooked or sadly undervalued (we’re in the latter camp on that one). The one title in Potter’s filmography that most will agree is her standout, however, is her adaptation of Virginia Woolf‘s “Orlando,” which gave Tilda Swinton the role she was absolutely born to play, and investigated gender norms and the evil of conformity through the last few centuries, in a playful, mournful manner. “The Party” is nothing like any of these.
Instead, it’s an acerbic drawing-room comedy, or rather a drawing room-kitchen-bathroom-yard comedy, that feels like it could have been written and performed as a play, or maybe a one-off TV special, while the black-and-white photography, and unnecessarily gimmicky gotcha ending, contribute to the impression of a student short film. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing — student films may not always impress with their polish or coherence or even originality, but there is an energy to “The Party,” and a kind of rejuvenating bouncy glee that we haven’t seen from Potter in a long time. And after “Ginger and Rosa,” a film that felt better directed than it was written, being undermined by some very stilted dialogue, the fact the Potter also wrote the screenplay here comes as another pleasant surprise. Turns out she can craft pithy put downs and characterful quips with the best of them. “Sally Potter’s funniest film” is not the faint praise it sounds like, and it is heartening to know that at 67 she can find new colors in her paintbox, figuratively if not literally (black and white, see?)
But comedy, no matter how well written, is reliant on performance, and Potter scores some terrific actors to give the wispy content whatever heft it has. The ostensible eye of the storm is Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) an idealistic, left-leaning politician who has just been appointed Shadow Minister for Health after a successful, all-consuming campaign. Fussing in the kitchen and fielding congratulatory phone calls while preparing hors d’oeuvres, she’s putting on a kind of women-can-do-it-all, “post-post-feminist” act, observes her best friend April, played by Patricia Clarkson, getting all the best lines and deserving them. Looking like a cross between Veronica Lake and the human embodiment of an eyeroll, April is the film’s most bitingly disdainful character, but the sparky yet loving relationship between her and Janet will also be the only one not upended by the night’s proceedings.
In the living room, Janet’s dazed, drunken husband Bill (Timothy Spall) plays DJ and stares into space, much preoccupied, while April’s partner Gottfried (a perfectly cast Bruno Ganz) exudes twinkly warmth and aphorisms that are utterly impervious to April’s incessant put-downs. Jittery banker Tom (Cillian Murphy) seems to be psyching himself up for something, chemically speaking. And Martha (Cherry Jones), a “first-class lesbian and second-rate thinker” (April again) and her pregnant partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer) pursue the film’s least involving subplot in between sparring with the others over idealism and politics. Revelations reveal, recriminations fly, and Janet forgets she left the oven on.
If the film has a major Achilles’ heel, it’s that, despite its general vim, it feels curiously old-fashioned. Perhaps it’s the “Abigail’s Party” comparisons, but more likely it’s the sense that, though contemporary, the political discussion it trades in feels lofty to the point of dissociation from current reality. The war between idealism vs pragmatism is of course an ongoing one, and ever will be, but the idea of a London-based shadow cabinet member having a party today, in which not one instance of the word (or concept) “Brexit” occurs, feels almost quaintly out of date. Perhaps this time last year that would not have been a critique, but we were all so much younger then, and now it feels almost decadently indulgent to have one’s most urgent political quandary be whether, as an NHS defender, one can ever justify seeing a private specialist.
But not only is hard to get mad at “The Party,” it’s all but impossible to stay mad at it, because it ends before you can possibly do so. And so, despite the unnecessary final coup de grace, it may leave you with a hankering for more. In another first, this is the only Sally Potter film to which we can remember thinking we’d really like to see a sequel, especially if this one focuses on MVPs Clarkson and Ganz: “The Party II: Shut Up, Gottfried,” anyone? [B]