Film & Television

Parlour games turn gladiatorial in ‘The Party’

By Doosie Morris
Sally Potter’s dark comedy skewers British manners

In June 2016, the very same week the United Kingdom held the Brexit referendum, another terribly British farce was unfolding, this one in a West London film studio. As the public voted, a multinational ensemble cast gathered with veteran British filmmaker Sally Potter to bring to life her latest offering. A high-minded comedy of self-regarding middle-class politics, The Party charts an intimate soiree as it descends into chaos. These are parlour games turned gladiatorial, where dinner party divertissement and bourgeois intellectualism collide, and egos fall.

The brass head of a lion, that emblem of British properness, presides at the entrance to a London townhouse. The door swings open to reveal a woman of a certain age, her smart bob a mess. She produces a pistol and aims it straight at the camera, her hands convulsing with rage and despair. As the opening titles roll, long-time Potter collaborator Fred Frith’s sincere guitar rendition of “Jerusalem” sets a deceptively sober tone.

After this intense and disquieting opening, we jolt back in time to the beginning of the ill-fated gathering, just over an hour earlier. In the kitchen, we find Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas), a pinny-clad power woman, juggling measuring cups as she fields congratulatory calls from well-wishers. She’s just been appointed to the position of shadow minister for health, and hasn’t even had time to change out of her work clothes before turning on the oven, chilling the bubbles and preparing to host her own celebratory get-together. All the while, her mobile chirps incessantly with furtive, amorous text messages. In the sitting room, largely oblivious to his wife’s preparations, ascent to political influence – or extra-marital activities, for that matter – her academic husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), perfects a morose, lobotomised indolence, red wine in hand. Bo Diddley dryly testifies from the record player, “I’m a Man”, in one of many delightfully ironic musical choices on a faultless soundtrack that skips from tango to gypsy, Coltrane to the Gershwin brothers.

While Bill marinates, April (Patricia Clarkson), Janet’s stylish, self-possessed best friend arrives, accompanied by her partner, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), an affable new-age bohemian whom April holds in caustic contempt seemingly as a matter of course. Offering Janet his condolences (“For once you reach the top of the mountain …”), he’s instantly admonished. “Oh shut up, Gottfried!” April lashes. “Spare us the aphorisms.”

Happily, though, it proves to be a suggestion that is largely ignored by both Gottfried and the film itself. From Clarkson’s first lines, it’s evident that she relishes the role; she perfectly embodies the seen-it-all-before former activist, whose candour and cynicism underpin some of the film’s sharpest one-liners. Fresh from silencing her “so-called” boyfriend, she declares democracy “finished” before remarking how ministerial Janet looks in her apron – “in a 21st-century postmodern, post-post-feminist sort of way”. Meanwhile, Gottfried has happily positioned himself cross-legged on the floor of the somewhat barren living room, beaming peacefully at the still catatonic host who only barely manages to introduce himself – “I’m Bill. I think … Or I used to be.”

The brass lion raps vigorously with each new arrival. Next is the couple’s long-time friend Martha (Cherry Jones), a professor (specialising in domestic labour gender differentiation in American utopianism), followed shortly after by her younger wife, Jinny (Emily Mortimer), a MasterChef runner-up who has come straight from an ultrasound revealing the couple’s IVF triplets. As the pair excuse themselves to digest the news, Tom (the ever-enchanting Cillian Murphy) arrives. An investment banker with a sweaty brow and an expensive suit, he’s at odds with the other guests in both age and ethics, and with charming urgency he makes a beeline for the bathroom to address his cocaine habit and the handgun he is concealing in a holster.

Conspicuously absent is Marian, “the beautiful queen of spin”, Tom’s wife and Janet’s underling. The set-up is impressively efficient, calling forth comparison to the classics Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Martha and Jinny, ahem) and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, where apparently genteel gatherings take swift turns for the absurd, as weak spots are revealed, illusions shattered, and social graces obliterated. The Party focuses on the interplay between super-charged personalities and explosive dynamics, and was written with what Potter calls “an awareness of the absurdity of human suffering”. One of its key successes is Potter’s insistence on the diversity of her characters. While each fits snugly into the rather limited world they represent, they retain an undeniable uniqueness, especially in their reactions to the rapidly unfolding events. Precise scripting pits the characters in relentless, hilarious ideological opposition and supporting the outstanding performances, Potter’s decision to shoot in black and white works a treat. In this ultra-confined space and time, the monochromatic cinematography (by Alexey Rodionov) brings a brilliant clarity to every squint and grimace, especially in the drastically low-angled shots that define the camerawork.

With introductions and pleasantries out of the way, it isn’t long before the cracks begin to show and an unstoppable sequence of increasingly savage and calamitous carryings-on is set in motion. Everything from public healthcare to the free market, Nazism and women’s studies is thrown into the fray. “Tickle an aromatherapist and you find a fascist,” April spits unapologetically. “I’m not an aromatherapist, I’m a life coach, and a healer,” replies Gottfried indignantly. Virgil quotes precede a particularly unbecoming scene of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and we aren’t done yet. No matter how dire events become, though, there is scarcely a moment of dramatic relief. As Janet sits sobbing in the bathroom, her life in tatters, April comments with the utmost sincerity that should she want to “run the country” – as they all know she does – she will “have to do something about her hair”. It’s this dry and delicate balancing act that makes The Party so much fun.

Within the confines of little more than an hour, a single location and a handful of characters, Potter delivers a film that shimmers with observational cunning, from Martha’s and Jinny’s near-matching outfits and Bill’s crumpled suit to each pithy, poisonous remark. The finale may be obvious, but it is perfectly in tune with how seriously The Party takes itself, which is to say, not too seriously. Despite all the poli-intellectual overtones, The Party remains delightfully tongue-in-cheek and wickedly acerbic – a riotous parlour piece that barely draws breath, while still managing to cast a measured, winking, eye over the politics of people, no matter what the party.

Doosie Morris

Doosie Morris is a Melbourne writer and critic. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow4:3 Film and on the MIFF website.

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