It opens with Kristin Scott Thomas pointing a gun at you, so you know the latest from Sally Potter (Orlando, The Tango Lesson, Yes), The Party, is going to be something special. The rest of the beautifully black-and-white film is a flashback to what got us to that point. It’s a story practically told in real time over the course of what was meant to be a celebration of Scott Thomas’s Janet’s latest political victory, one that seems to put her one step closer to becoming the British prime minister. But as she prepares for this small gathering of old friends, it’s clear that something isn’t right with several of her guests, and the resulting evening is the systematic unraveling of many secrets and other unpleasantries.
Not to put anyone off by painting The Party as a grim affair, in fact, the film is more of a pitch-black comedy (also written by Potter) that exposes hypocrisy, pulls off the scabs of corrosive relationships, and shows everyone in attendance at this swanky dinner that they are no better than those they look down upon because of their elevated class. The most obviously out of sorts is Janet’s husband Bill (Timothy Spall), who is practically catatonic while guests are arriving. But Janet doesn’t notice because she’s too busy taking secret calls and texts from an unknown lover. Her best friend, April (Patricia Clarkson), and her annoyingly positive partner Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) arrive early, followed shortly by a lesbian couple, Martha and Jinny (Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer). Finally, young Tom (Cillian Murphy) shows up and promptly runs into the bathroom to snort enormous amounts of cocaine throughout the film; his unseen wife is said to be joining the group for dessert.
When Bill gets his wits about him long enough to make a seismic announcement, it sets off a chain reaction of contemplation and revelation that sends the evening imploding upon itself with alarming speed. With a running time of about 70 minutes, feeling more like a one-act play than a film (in fact, many in the cast are better or equally well known for their stage work), The Party is no less engaging because of it. Potter’s approach to the event is not making us the fly on the wall. Instead, she places her camera right in the middle of the emotional chaos, so that we feel like we are part of the fun. It makes the experience both more intimate but also truly unsettling at times. The action never strays farther than the backyard of the house, and by the end of the story, the previously mentioned pistol shows up again, seeming as out of place as the free-flowing champagne, considering the mood.
As an existential chamber piece, The Party considers the nature of class, the loss of love, and the catastrophe of politics, all while making us laugh at the absurdity of the situation and the various cataclysmic declarations. The film is experimental yet highly accessible, abrasive yet embraceable, ferocious yet heartfelt. These contradictions are Potter’s comfort zone and the place where she thrives in tearing down the pomposity of class and perhaps making the audience feel a bit better about their own circumstances. In that sense, it’s also a rousing crowd-pleaser despite it being a colossal bummer on the surface. More contradictions, I suppose. See for yourself.
The film opens today in Chicago at the AMC River East 21 and the Landmark Century Centre Cinema.