Berlinale review: The Party (Sally Potter)

A political career can change overnight (just ask Michael Flynn). So can a relationship. Secrets and lies can radically alter the way people view each other, for better, but just as often for worse. All these elements come together in Sally Potter’s new film about a dinner party from hell, aptly called The Party. The hosts are Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) and Bill (Timothy Spall), she at the pinnacle of her career in which she has just been named Shadow Minister of Health in the opposition party, he an academic who has side-tracked his career in favor of hers. The first guests to arrive are April (Patricia Clarkson) and Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), Janet’s withering best friend and her on-off partner, a German life-coach with an interesting approach to healthcare. More guests trickle in: Martha (Cherry Jones), an old college mate of Bill and an activist in Janet’s political (unspecified) party; Jinny (Emily Mortimer), her younger girlfriend, an upbeat girl who arrives with an announcement to make; and Tom (Cillian Murphy), the banker husband of Marianne, Janet’s spin doctor, who, he assures everyone, will arrive later.

This small group of seven gathers to celebrate Janet’s rise to the top. She is a bit on edge, perhaps because she gets calls from her secret lover when she should be preparing the canapés. Bill, on the other hand, is completely apathetic. He has an announcement of his own to make: he has just found out that he is terminally ill. From the moment he drops that bomb, the whole party goes to hell…

Living room, kitchen, bathroom, backyard. Four spaces, seven people, and a sizzling screenplay are all you need to create a deliciously vile farce of expert quality. To be fair, not just anybody could have done Potter’s biting dialogue as much justice. It takes seven actors of exceptional quality to turn what, at least on the surface, is a silly barrage of jealousy, hatred, infidelity, and spiritual bullshitting into the sharpest laugh riot since In the Loop, also a decidedly British comedy. There is something about British writers and actors that makes them feel extremely equipped to do this kind of comedy. Somehow, an American version of this would never do, as the language and wit are as distinctly British as afternoon tea, and Americans lack the knack for that. It would be unfair to single out any part of the ensemble, as they are all fully game to bare it all, and even ‘outsiders’ Jones and Ganz fit right in, but Patricia Clarkson as the cynical best friend with one-liners so acidic they could cut through metal is certainly the most memorable.

The film is shot in crisp black and white by Potter’s longtime collaborator Alexsei Rodionov. This is a conscious decision, as it conjures up a very British style of filmmaking of the ’60s (films like The L-Shaped Room, for instance) that also had strong undertones in the way they reflected the state of Britain and its politics. Given that Potter wrote The Party just before the most recent British general election, the film should be seen as a reflection on political life, as much as anything. The milieu in which it is situated, the fact that three of the characters are active in politics (and a fourth is a banker, a representation of capitalism run amok, one of the political hot topics of our times), and how it creates an analogue for political spin in the way characters make their truths malleable, are all indicators that there is more to the screenplay than seven people shading each other. Although shade is an important aspect of the black-and-white photography: the elimination of colour draws our focus to the actors, the visual shades emphasizing the verbal ones. This, without even pointing out that the title refers as much to a political party as to the dinner party at hand.

If there is any downside to The Party, it’s that it is awfully short, clocking in at just 70 minutes. At the end of the movie one yearns for more. The circular editing of the film, in which the closing scene expands on the opening one, in just a few lines making sense of the wildness of that opening, is an elegant way to wrap things up though, as it ties up the loose strands in the plotting in one fell swoop. From a writing point of view, the ending is perfect, as it closes the film on a high, yet also teases opportunities for further mayhem. But this mayhem will have to take place in the audience’s head, as the on-screen spaces have become too tight to fit all seven characters, let alone one more.