Sally Potter is not normally known for comedy; her most famous film, Orlando (which put Tilda Swinton on the map) certainly has its comedic moments, but her work (such as The Tango Lesson and Yes) tend to more serious examinations of what my colleague Sophie Mayer calls the politics of love. In her latest film The Party, however, she turns her astute eye in a most hilarious way to this politics of love (and the love of politics). Part biting satire, part drawing room farce, its frenetic vision of the most disastrous celebratory dinner is a masterpiece, and a timely commentary on recent political events and the said politics of human emotion.
Janet (Kristen Scott Thomas) has just been appointed Shadow Minister of Health in the UK Parliament, fulfilling a life-long dream supported by her husband Bill (Timothy Spall). They have invited various friends for a dinner: the cynical April (Patricia Clarkson) and her more spiritually inclined partner Gottfried (Bruno Ganz); feminist theory professor Martha (Cherry Jones) and her pregnant partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer); and Tom (Cillian Murphy), the financier husband of their friend Marianne, who will be arriving late. In the midst of the celebration, Bill drops the first of several devastating bombshells. As each new piece of news is revealed (and several characters tried to hide things even more distastrous), the party goes from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Potters gives the audience about 10 minutes to settle into the scenario before the setting off at a frenetic pace. At 71 minutes total running time, this gives little time for the audience to breathe, especially as laughter is almost continuous. There characters are the so-called liberal elite, so their lives might seem somewhat privileged (which they are), and so perhaps sympathy is a bit elusive, but Potter is taking to task not only those who think themselves above petty concerns, but also the language with which they communicate: by transferring the academic/intelligensia into a farce normally reserved for more superficial concerns, and forcing the characters to emotional and physical extremes.
As stated, Potter is more known for experimental work, so using such a classic genre is for her an experiment. By drawing on both British and French traditions of drawing room farce (and television tropes of bottle episodes), Potter sets herself quite a task of containing not only a huge amount of information in a small space and span of time, but also creates a challenge for her actors. But that is no matter for The Party: with a stellar cast such as this, relishing in roles that for some are in their wheelhouse (Thomas, Spall, Jones), and others cast more off-type (Murphy, Ganz), making this seem at once both a stage play and a film is finely tuned. Especially as these are mainly actors not normally associated with this kind of farcical comedy, which adds to the humour (and three cheers for nasty women).
By using monochrome (not unheard of with directors today), and a series of close-ups that seem almost done with a fish-eye lens, Potter focuses our attention on the shadows, hidden lies and emotions, and the blunt black and white of the situation. And while the script was written pre-Brexit, no doubt those stirrings had an influence on the political undertones (and indeed, the Brexit vote occured during the two-week shoot). Anyone with an interest in the current political quaqmires of the western world will no doubt both laugh and slightly despair at the discussion, mirrored in the professional and personal. Party politics, gender politics, age, privilege, nothing gets unexamined and deliciously skewered for how these characters see themselves in relation to their positions in life, and the (argubaly often) petty concerns that leave them unable to cope when things go so terribly wrong.
With a hint of Rebecca thrown in for good measure, Potter has made not only her first comedy an incredible success, but alongside recent European films such as Toni Erdmann, a distinctly feminist perspective on political and personal disaster. But it's still very much a Sally Potter film, full of witty and intelligent dialogue, fascinating characters, great actors, and the fine balance of love and liberty.