If Sally Potter invites you to her pad for a soiree, consider saying “no” unless you like being miserable. You won’t get a chance to eat, partly because your mouth will be too busy either spinning repartee or defending you from tongue lashings care of your fellow guests, and partly because the unattended canapes will burn in the oven and turn the kitchen into a smokehouse. No setting aside your woes and simply enjoying the company of your friends, because your friends will be otherwise occupied airing their dirty laundry, or dumping yours all over the living room floor. You also might end up getting punched so hard that your best course of action is to remain crumpled in a ball instead of standing back up.
There’s a third option, of course: Sit on the sidelines and delight in catastrophic merrymaking. That’s the entire point of Potter’s new film, The Party, a lean and vicious piece of work front-loaded with pathos, accompanied by a sense of humor as black as pitch. The Party is set in one location, filled out by seven characters ranging from bitter to jaded to coked-out, and so corrosive you may consider wearing chemical-resistant gloves while watching. Calling the film “dark comedy” feels like a misnomer. In dark comedy, subjects considered taboo are put front and center for our mutual amusement. Nothing about The Party feels especially taboo. The movie prefers honesty verging on anguish. Potter wants your chagrin as much as your laughter.
At about 70 minutes in length, The Party has a lot to accomplish and seemingly little time in which to accomplish it, but Potter is nothing if not economical. Her work here is small in scale and in setting, but grand in intention, a film that barrels forward faster than a bullet. That’s nearly a literal motif, too: She begins the movie with Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas), our hostess, opening her apartment door to greet us by aiming a gun at the camera. For a moment it seems she’s threatening us, or perhaps she’s threatening Potter’s cinematographer, Aleksei Rodionov, equally a character in the picture as the rest of The Party’s ensemble. Together, he and Potter show up other attempts at filmed plays by marrying the script-driven and character-forward quality of the latter with the voyeuristic lens of the former.
In truth Janet is pissed at a mysterious eight guest whose identity we don’t learn until the very end. Up until then, she has plenty to deal with thanks to those present. Janet, a politician, has been declared England’s minister for health. She throws a get-together to celebrate her success, but everyone else’s droll self-pitying bullshit gets in the way. There’s her husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), despondent to the point of total detachment; April (Patricia Clarkson), Janet’s best friend, a harsh-tongued unapologetic realist; and Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), April’s hippie-dippy guru boyfriend. Before long they’re joined by Jinny (Emily Mortimer) and Martha (Cherry Jones), Jinny the cheery type and Martha considerably stonier.
Last of all, there’s Tom (Cillian Murphy), husband of one of Janet’s friends, who on arrival locks himself in the bathroom, vomits, does a line of blow and checks the pistol he keeps on his person for no reason we can immediately discern. The Party has tangible frisson before Tom shows up, but once he does, the air starts to shimmer around him. He’s gasoline on the tire fire Potter stages for our viewing pleasure. She is a seeker of truth, of unflattering truths we hide from our loved ones as well as ourselves. Bill is having an identity crisis, sparked by both Janet’s career advancement and an unkind medical diagnosis. Jinny and Martha have incompatible views on their imminent parenthood. Tom is high as a kite and armed with a lethal weapon. April hates Gottfried, and she has little to no patience for anyone other than Janet.
“Babies get born every day in extremely large numbers to the point of endangering the planet and all our futures,” she tells Jinny and Martha, disgusted that they’d steal Janet’s thunder at announcing their pregnancy at her own party. “It’s not everyday, however, that one of us becomes a minister in your entirely rotten and useless opposition party.” It’s one of many solid gold put-downs in April’s arsenal of barbed rebukes, and it nicely sums up several of The Party’s chief themes: Feminine ascendancy, human self-involvement, and cultural cynicism. Paired with Potter’s motif of fragile masculinity, the film comes to resemble a powder keg more than a narrative.
As close as she takes us to melodramatic detonations, though, The Party never feels less than uncomfortably real. Authentic even. None of us wants to acknowledge the wrinkles at the edges of our personal lives. More often than not we’d rather bury our heads in sociopolitical sand. It’s easier to pretend, but pretending never works. Potter knows as much and she preys on that human instinct with savage sophistication, a change of pace following her last film, 2012’s sobering but far gentler Ginger & Rosa. The Party has no use for the clemency of youth, though. It’s a film about pettiness couched in maturity, and a brilliantly merciless take on the comedy of manners. That we had to wait five years for Potter’s latest feature is a nothing less than cruelty.
Director: Sally Potter
Writer: Sally Potter
Starring: Kristin Scott Thomas, Patricia Clarkson, Timothy Spall, Bruno Ganz, Emily Mortimer, Cherry Jones, Cillian Murphy
Release Date: February 16, 2018 (theatrical); February 19, 2018 (DVD, Blu-ray, digital)
Boston-based pop culture critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste since 2013. He also writes words for The Playlist, WBUR’s The ARTery, Slant Magazine, The Hollywood Reporter, Polygon, Thrillist, and Vulture, and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.