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.

 

 

Virginia Woolf, ‘Between the Acts’

Virginia Woolf, née Stephens (1882-1941), was famously a central figure in the Bloomsbury Group, that loosely-linked, sexually entangled set of artists and writers who originally lived and met in the Bloomsbury district of central London. I’m sure I don’t need to say more: this is well-charted territory, and my OWC edition has an informative Preface and Introduction by the great Frank Kermode.

1902 photo of Virginia Woolf by George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) via Wikimedia commons

1902 photo of Virginia Woolf by George C. Beresford/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) via Wikimedia commons

Between the Acts was completed in November 1940 but published in 1941, shortly after the author had drowned herself in the River Ouse in Sussex, having lapsed into another episode of the depression that had dogged her throughout her life. Its title derives from the novel’s central event: the staging of a ‘pageant’ about English history in the grounds of Pointz Hall, the country seat of the Oliver family.

The novel’s subject is the history and culture of England as enacted in the pageant, possibly in response to the desperate atmosphere in which it was written, shortly after the outbreak of World War II. London was enduring the blitz – the Woolfs’ London house was damaged in it. Europe had largely fallen under the Nazi onslaught, and German invasion seemed imminent. Virginia’s husband, the Jewish intellectual Leonard Woolf, knew well what his fate would be under German occupation. From their Sussex house near the south coast of England they watched some of the aerial dogfights as the German planes flew towards their target zones: the industrial centres of Britain.

The very survival of the country, and all that the Woolfs held dear in it – art, literature, civilization itself – seemed doomed. This novel can be seen, then, as concerning itself with endings: internationally and politically, but also personally. It’s set in June 1939, just before war was declared, but the crisis was clearly coming even then.

My initial response to the novel was not entirely positive. The first half reads something like an Evelyn Waugh kind of witty portrait of privileged country gentry patronising the rural peasantry, with a great deal of sparkling social conversation and concerns expressed (as with Mrs Dalloway) about the refreshments (will the fish be fresh?) and about the weather – the pageant can only be staged outdoors if fine, in the swallow-haunted barn if wet. Kermode points out, however, that the novel needs to be read as a high modernist summa of contradictory images and thoughts: it is a linguistic enactment of the polarities which make up what we consider to be reality, and out of which we strive to make some kind of coherent sense. I shall give this a try.

From the opening paragraphs another feature becomes apparent: the use of imagery as another means of attempting to convey life with all its shiftings of solidity. First we see Mrs Haines, ‘the wife of a gentleman farmer’:

a goosefaced woman with eyes protruding as if they saw something to gobble in the gutter

 

Then Isa, wife of old Bart Oliver’s son Giles, enters:

She came in like a swan swimming in its way; then was checked and stopped.

People quote Byron (the first of innumerable intertextualities, from canonical literary authors like the Romantics and Shakespeare, to snatches of nursery rhyme), and the words, the narrative suggests – at this point focalising on Isa’s consciousness with its streaming flow –

made two rings, perfect rings, that floated them, herself and Haines, like two swans down stream. But his snow-white breast was tangled with a circle of dirty duckweed; and she too in her webbed feet was entangled, by her husband the stockbroker.

 

What’s going on here? It’s tempting to fall into biographical fallacy and see a prophetic allusion to Virginia Woolf’s imminent death in the weedy Ouse; this may be so, but more to the point the entwined, iterated images of birds and water indicate that there are darker undercurrents, especially in the central relationships between the elderly brother and sister, Lucy and Bart Oliver, but more particularly that of Giles – who has a roving eye — and Isa, with whom he fails to connect emotionally. At the personal and the national level, that is, things are falling apart.

Images of birds and death and violence convey this. In the next paragraph Miss Haines, feeling excluded from the emotion circulating in the room, anticipates the moment in the car on the way home when

she would destroy it, as a thrush pecks the wings off a butterfly.

It’s a mistake, then, to read Between the Acts – as I admit I did initially – as simply a fanciful sequence of non-events and what Kermode calls ‘irrelevant fancies’; the author wasn’t especially interested in plot – her aim is to represent the randomness and incoherence of the fracturing world in the texture of her language, as poetry does. If it’s read in this spirit, the novel appears less trivial.

The animal and bird imagery is woven through the novel, illuminating as in a verbal tapestry the narrative. This too is heavily freighted with rhythmic and syntactic patterns, as Kermode shows: dyadic and triadic patterns, repetitions and inversions, heavily marked by intrusive punctuation, are frequent. Back to violent imagery and stream of troubled consciousness. Here’s Lucy Swithin –

She had been waked by the birds. How they sang! attacking the dawn like so many choir boys attacking an iced cake.

 

She goes on to muse about prehistoric Britain, when there were ‘rhodedendron forests’ in Piccadilly, and no English Channel divided the country from the continent. By examining this imagery it’s possible to see that Virginia Woolf is attempting, through such poetic tropes, to portray Britain in its entirety, from prehistory to the current desperate time of war, in terms of transitory fleetingness and cyclical patterns (birds inhabit the air (like warplanes?) or drift on water; their lives are short; swallows are often mentioned: they migrate – depart, arrive back). The troubled relationships of the central characters counterpoint these larger matters.

The second half of the novel I found less satisfactory. It relates in what I found to be too much detail the contents of the pageant: staged tableaux and mini-plays depicting important milestones in Britain’s history, from early cavemen to the 1930s. There are long extracts of dramatic dialogue that I confess I often skipped. I also skimmed the last 50 pages.

The cover of my Oxford World's Classics paperback edition

The cover of my Oxford World’s Classics paperback edition

Between the Acts is worth reading, however, for its first half. Here’s a last extract to indicate its better poetic qualities, with those rhythmic patterns and swirling images:

Mrs Sands [the cook] fetched bread; Mrs Swithin fetched ham. One cut the bread; the other the ham. It was soothing, it was consolidating, this handiwork together…Why’s stale bread, [Lucy] mused, easier to cut than fresh? And so skipped, sidelong, from yeast to alcohol; so to fermentation; so to inebriation; so to Bacchus; and lay under purple lamps in a vineyard in Italy, as she had done, often; while Sands heard the clock tick; saw the cat; noted a fly buzz; and registered, as her lips showed, a grudge she mustn’t speak against people making work in the kitchen while they had a high old time hanging paper roses in the barn.

 

Some readers may find this too highly wrought; in some ways it is. But it’s also a subtle representation of the ways different people’s thoughts flow ineluctably towards the unknown, intertwining but never fully merging, laden with images (bread, clock, cat, fly) and sensations of sounds, sights and memories, from the mundane and concrete to the ethereal, abstract and imaginative. No individual can ever truly know another, this passage seems to suggest, or fully connect – but she can try. I can think of few other writers who come close to such a feat of narrative performance. Henry James, perhaps. It’s hard work, reading this novel, but probably worth the effort.

I maybe need to read it again in the light of the second thoughts I’ve begun outlining here, and the brief assessment of some of the extracts cited; and give its other half a more attentive reading. Meanwhile I have other holiday reading to post about, and more books to read. And work next week…