Someone stabbed the panda: Sally Potter, The Party

I haven’t often written about films here, but today I feel compelled to do so. With Mrs TD I went yesterday to see British director Sally Potter’s new film ‘The Party’. It’s not sufficiently blockbusterish for our local cinema, so we had to go to the more adventurous arts centre, the estimable Poly in Falmouth.

It’s a delightful old building in the centre of the town. An added civilised pleasure is that you can buy a glass of wine in the bar and take it in to the auditorium while you watch the film.

It’s a theatrical sort of film, shot completely within the downstairs rooms and courtyard garden of what looks to be a smart little house in London. Janet, played with her usual cool sophistication and hint of darkness by Kristin Scott Thomas, has just been promoted to become shadow Health Minister – her film’s title presumably encompasses the political as well as the celebratory meanings of the word. She’s invited some of her closest friends to a dinner party to help her celebrate.

Sally Potter, The Party poster

Poster from the Sally Potter website

The film opens with a strangely detached Bill, Janet’s university academic husband, sitting staring vacantly in his chair, listening to a sequence of wonderful records, starting with vintage blues and jazz. He has a glass of wine in his hand, the bottle by his chair. Arriving guests assume he’s drunk. We soon learn there are other explanations for the haunted look in his eyes.

First to arrive is the cynical, sharp-tongued April (Patricia Clarkson almost steals the film; she has all the best lines – but there are plenty shared by the rest of the cast; her biting one-liners are worthy of Dorothy Parker. Her partner is the benignly smiley, cheerfully ageing hippy, bogus ‘life coach’ and vacuous ‘spiritual healer’ Gottfried, played by Bruno Ganz, who I last saw playing Hitler in ‘Downfall’; Gottfried could hardly be a more different role, and he clearly loves every minute of it. When April says of him ‘Scratch an aromatherapist and you’ll find a fascist’ at one point it’s like someone’s stabbed a panda.

April frequently reminds whoever will listen that they are breaking up, and berates him for his dippy New Age platitudes – yet there’s an unlikely, unacknowledged tenderness between them that starts to emerge towards the end.

The other guests are a lesbian couple Martha and another academic, Jinny (Emily Mortimer and Cherry Jones) with a big announcement to make, and Tom (Cillian Murphy), who’s suspiciously jumpy and erratic, more so after snorting coke in the bathroom. And why is he carrying a gun?

Like a classic drawing-room mystery-thriller, each character peels away layers of bourgeois gentility and complacency to reveal passions, dark secrets and obsessions that will change all their lives.

This all might sound a little earnest, but it’s far from it: the film is laugh-out-loud hilarious. But there’s a serious, satirical edge to the proceedings, so we never feel this is just a bit of escapist froth. For example, April’s caustic nihilism is an indication of her disillusionment with the optimistic soft-left stance of champagne socialists like her dear friend Janet (and philosopher husband Bill). Their comfortable middle-class liberalism is offset by city financier fat cat Tom’s callous, selfish capitalism. Martha and Jinny are shown to have differences, and all of the women characters are forced to confront their shortcomings as members of the postfeminist ‘sisterhood’. Even atheist Bill begins to listen more seriously to the cosy guru-humanist-spiritual Gottfried. In the spirit of all great drama, every character learns something about themselves and others.

The script then is sharp, the plot full of startling twists and surprises, but none of them forced or unnatural – they arise out of the characters and their relationships with each other, and deal with most of today’s most pressing social-political concerns. And the 71-minutes of the film, in which the action happens in real time, is just right. A tightly-plotted ensemble ‘entertainment’, in the Graham Greene sense (as Sally Potter said in a Guardian profile recently), the film moves inexorably, hilariously to its startling, inevitable conclusion, making a mordantly pertinent social commentary at the same time.

The characters are necessarily a little too representative of the types they represent, rather than fully-rounded, but this is inevitable in such a short piece which has so much to say. This is by far the best film I’ve seen in a long time. It knocks spots off the sumptuous nonsense that was Murder on the Orient Express, which I endured last week.

The lustrous black-and-white photography by Aleksei Rodionov adds to the tragi-comic atmosphere, as does the music (there’s a great joke about what’s suitable mood music for a crisis). Since her first major success, when she tackled the gender-fluid Virginia Woolf novel Orlando, with Tilda Swinton playing the central character’s shifting persona, Sally Potter has always portrayed gender relations and the problematic role of women in a social setting that’s corrupt, decadent and lost. There are echoes of Edward Albee’s ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?’

 

Look out for the urban fox: he’s perhaps a symbol of the feral truth beneath the sophisticated social veneer of this doomed dinner party.