The Party (2017)

Director/Screenwriter: Sally Potter

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Sally Potter is an independent filmmaker, a term that takes on an expansive meaning when applied to her. Potter is not constrained by custom and expectations when choosing her stories and the ways to tell them. Her experimental bent has produced an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s gender-bending novel, Orlando (1992), a love story performed entirely in verse form (Yes, 2004), and a satire on the fashion industry meant to be viewed on a cellphone (Rage, 2009). The Tango Lesson (1997), a straightforward look at gender dynamics, drew criticism because Potter chose to star as herself in the film, and where she showed off her considerable tango dancing skills. Potter’s new film, The Party, offers another example of her independent spirit, this time her impish impulse.

England’s unofficial anthem, “Jerusalem,” usually signals to moviegoers that they are about to see a tale drenched in the tradition, perseverance and stiff-upper-lipness for which the British are stereotypically famous. Potter’s use of the hymn to introduce The Party is strictly tongue-in-cheek as she prepares to pounce upon the pretensions of her country’s neoliberals and intelligensia.

Loosely adopting Anton Chekhov’s famous dictum, “One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it,” the first scene shows a door with a large, brass door knocker open to reveal a woman whose name we will learn is Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) pointing a handgun directly at us. From that attention-grabbing opening, the film flashes back a few hours as Janet prepares to receive guests, including the one who brings the handgun that must go off, to help her celebrate being named Minister of Health.

Janet putters in the kitchen preparing to put her vol-au-vent shells in the oven while taking congratulatory calls on her cellphone and whispering furtively to a paramour who phones frequently. Bill (Timothy Spall), her cuckold of a husband, is in the living room looking mustard-gassed as he moves mechanically to his turntable to blare one blues album after another and then return to a low-slung chair facing the patio holding a glass of red wine precariously over a light area rug. Unaccountably, a fox pauses at the open patio door and then scurries away.

Janet’s guests start to arrive. Her best friend, April (Patricia Clarkson), congratulates her while declaring democracy and parlimentary politics D.O.A. Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), April’s New Agey boyfriend, brings a loopy forebearance to April’s unceasing criticisms of just about everything, especially him. Bill’s long-time friend, Martha (Cherry Jones), arrives in advance of her wife, Jinny (Emily Mortimer). When Jinny does show up, she holds three fingers in front of her belly, and the pair goes onto the patio to contemplate the pending arrival of artificially inseminated triplets. Rounding out the ensemble is Tom (Cillian Murphy), a financier whose wife helped run Janet’s campaign. After telling Janet his wife will be along for dessert, Tom runs into the bathroom, sweat pouring from his brow, and lays down some lines of cocaine to help him make it through the night.

In Chekhovian fashion, The Party is a chamber piece that showcases failure, not only of marital love, but also of optimism. Bill has sacrificed his own career to help Janet reach her goals, even turning down a post at “Harvard,” Janet remembers, only to be corrected: “Yale.” Tom defends his line of work by saying all money is dirty because it moves through so many hands, but shows himself to be a conservative coward whose attempts to save his marriage haplessly reveal his aversion to change of any kind. Janet, the very symbol of the value of the National Health Service, defends Bill’s decision to see a private physician because “it’s Bill.” April is left to conclude that she and the man from whom she keeps saying she is separating are actually the best-adjusted couple of the bunch.

Even more than Chekhov, Potter loads her work with humor, from the imposing close-ups of the near-catatonic Bill and the deranged Tom to Janet’s dumping of her lover via text mere seconds after she learns Bill is deathly ill. The sexual antics of most of the principals become farcical, particularly when Martha reveals that she and Bill once slept together and an outraged Jinny yells, “Are you telling me you had a man inside you?!” while likely carrying at least one potential man in her womb. Poor Tom, in a fit of rage, coldcocks Bill and seemingly kills him. As Bill lays prostrate on the floor, Tom, thinking to bring him back to consciousness, looks for a record to stimulate him. Of course, the first one he chooses is “When I Am Laid in Earth” from Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas.

The Party is a title with a double meaning, and the film does indulge in some subtextual politics in addition to its more overt dialog about money, idealism, and realism. When Bill declares that he is going to leave Janet so that he can spend his last days in happiness with someone who bothers to notice him, it is hard not to think of the aggrieved and forgotten citizens who made Brexit a reality. Gottfried as representative of powerhouse EU nation Germany offers the kind of navel-gazing solution to the problems faced by the rest of the EU that reminded me of the worst excesses of the careless rich in Michael Tolkin’s The New Age (1994); it is thus fitting that the American April is allied with Gottfried.

It is an absolute joy to watch this ensemble of gifted actors work off one another with such enjoyment and enthusiasm. I was particularly glad to see long-time favorite Ganz and the rarely seen Jones. She brings an intense sincerity to her role that is both tonally jarring with the rest of the film and evidence that there is still a heart beating in the breast of humanity that might make it worth saving.

  • Cool Bev spoke:
    14th/02/2018 to 7:29 am

    The black and white made me think this was somehow related to the Jazz age graphic novel The Wild Party. Aside from the cocaine and infidelity, I’m guessing not.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    14th/02/2018 to 9:29 am

    As I know nothing about that graphic novel, I can’t say for sure. However, Potter began writing the script in 2015, if the timeline helps.

  • Cool Bev spoke:
    14th/02/2018 to 6:13 pm

    I’ve looked it up – I’m all mixed up. The Wild Party was a poem in 1928, and a movie by Dorothy Arzner and Clara Bow in 1929 (but not necessarily related?), then a movie in 1979 and a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman in 1994. Prob. not related to The Party any more than the Peter Sellers movie.

    Never mind.

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