*** ½ (out of 4)
Sally Potter’s The Party is the latest addition to the illustrious subgenre of satire films that center around a bourgeois dinner party. In this particular instance, the bourgeois protagonists in question are seven members of the British elite, and they’re gathering to celebrate the fact that one of their number (named Jane, played by Kristin Scott Thomas) has just been appointed shadow health minister. When the movie opens, we watch as all the characters – Jane, her husband Bill (Timothy Spall), her best friend April (Patricia Clarkson), April’s partner Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), a lesbian couple named Jinny (Emily Mortimer) and Martha (Cherry Jones), a banker named Tom (Cillian Murphy) – enter Jane’s living room in relatively good cheer. But luckily, we don’t have to wait long for an incident that’ll permanently shatter their happy façade: mere seconds after they deliver a toast to Jane, Bill abruptly announces that he’s terminally ill.
In her depiction of the chaos and conflict that emerge in the wake of Bill’s bombshell declaration, Potter primarily seeks to advance two larger themes. First, in the character of Bill, she offers an incisive depiction of the death of reason. On paper, after all, Jane’s ailing husband serves as a perfect embodiment of secular humanism’s inquiring spirit. He’s not only a successful classics professor – Yale once offered him a tenured position, and he can quote Virgil and Catullus from memory – but at the start of the film, we also learn that he’s a lifelong atheist, the kind of non-believer who would probably bemoan the outsize role that religion continues to play in Western politics.
As the movie moves forward, however, Potter feeds us information and images that gradually undercut the lofty aura that Bill’s intellectual credentials evoke. On a narrative level, for example, we eventually learn that he’s the kind of professor who sleeps with his students – and that he has no problem abandoning his erstwhile deep-seated secular convictions if that helps him better cope with the prospect of death. Visually, moreover, the film conveys Bill’s fallibility and frailty in two ways. First, he spends much of the movie hunched over in a chair, a blank, what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here expression permanently etched onto his face. And second, Potter’s tendency to shoot him from a low angle makes him look like a sort of dying god; in light of everything that ends up occurring in the plot, the motif perfectly speaks to both Bill’s impotence and that of the “dignified” scholarly tradition he represents.
From here, The Party establishes a telling counterpoint to Bill in the character of April. If the former personifies life-affirming, Enlightenment-based humanism, the latter is instead distinguished by her total contempt for that very same tradition. When April first congratulates Jane, for example, she qualifies her praise of her friend with the claim that “democracy is finished.” Later, as tensions in the plot heat up, she nonchalantly notes that “I expect the worst of everyone, in the name of realism.” And throughout the film, she periodically airs her pessimistic views on an assortment of established customs and professions: marriage is “an insufferably sunny institution,” while bankers “make millions out of others’ misfortune.”
In a sense, then, you could say that Bill and April are spokespeople for competing intellectual currents. And throughout the film, Potter never leaves you in doubt as to which of the two has the upper hand. On the level of content, for one, the events of the plot leave Bill and many others extremely agitated; aside from Gottfried, however, April is the only character who always remains completely composed. Furthermore, this disparity between April and Bill also carries over into the film’s form. When the characters first offer a toast to Jane, for example, April stands in the foreground and leads the group in said toast, but Bill remains seated, hunched, and completely mute in the background. Ultimately, these sorts of contrasts pop up all throughout the film – and by emphasizing the strength of April and her quasi-nihilistic brand of cynicism, they offer an indirect but scarily accurate reflection of recent trends in public discourse.
Examinations of reason aside, The Party also analyzes a topic Potter previously broached in works like 1992’s Orlando: the varying ways women and men cope with changes in traditional gender roles. To begin with, Jane as a character speaks to the remarkable strides women have made in the public sphere over the past 50 years. Throughout the film, in fact, she usually can’t go more than two minutes without having to take a phone call from a colleague, well-wisher, or acquaintance looking for help – a narrative detail that testifies to the level of success she’s attained. And at one point, April goes so far as to explicitly compare Jane and Bill to Margaret and Denis Thatcher.
Despite her substantial professional accomplishments, however, Jane can never completely escape the specter of traditional, domestically-oriented conceptions of femininity. Case in point: when Bill announces his illness, she instantly, reflexively responds by saying she’ll immediately resign her hard-won cabinet position. In the moment, moreover, she crouches down in front of Bill, and the high-angle shots that Potter uses to depict the couple’s exchanges suddenly make Jane look like a passive, servile supplicant. Here, Jane’s seemingly subordinate posture comes in ironic contrast to the great power she supposedly wields as an up-and-coming politician; this contrast is so stark, in fact, that it compels you to ask whether a man would’ve reacted this way to an ailing wife. (Alas, probably not.) The overall scene consequently implies that Jane still unconsciously holds herself to the very same woman-as-nurturing-caretaker norms she’s spent her whole career running from, an idea that many will find depressingly relevant.
Meanwhile, if the women in The Party have difficulty throwing off established norms, the film’s male characters suffer from the opposite problem: they have no norms to fall back on at all. As we see throughout the movie, none of them possesses the dominating strength and authority that we typically associate with masculinity. Gottfried, for example, is a cipher of a character: he has no more than five or six lines of dialogue, and he literally spends most of the film lurking in the background. Tom, furthermore, is a drug addict who copes with his wife’s infidelity by desperately repeating “I’m a winner!” to himself. And as for Bill, there’s a telling scene in the film where he’s shown lying on the ground while “Dido’s Lament” plays in the background. By ironically establishing his identity as a “male Dido,” the scene ably speaks to the tradition-defying role reversals that characterize his relationship with Jane.
All in all, then, each of these men conducts himself in a manner that goes against conventional, “manly man” notions of masculinity. As Potter shows us, however, this doesn’t mean that they have any better ideas regarding what modern-day men ought to be like. If anything, in fact, the consistent extremity of their outward behavior (total, borderline pathetic meekness in Gottfried’s case; a penchant for violent, futile outbursts of anger in Tom’s) points to their deeper inability to properly express and deal with their inner emotions. Watching them, you thus can’t help but feel that you’re watching three men who remain emasculated and lost in the absence of new, non-strength-based definitions of masculinity – an impression that Potter only reinforces via her tendency to shoot them with disorienting canted and low angles. In that sense, the film’s portrayal of its male characters elegantly highlights the deleterious effects of our society’s long-running, tragically consequential crisis of masculinity.
Ultimately, if The Party somehow leaves you feeling slightly disappointed, it’ll probably be for one of two reasons. The first is merely contextual: as a standard dinner-party satire, The Party lacks the stylistic and thematic audacity of some of Potter’s earlier works (e.g. Orlando). The second, however, is more fundamental – in her eagerness to get the viewer thinking, Potter has her characters reference far more subjects (e.g. death, the NHS, the value of democracy, the role of money, Western medicine’s efficacy) than she can ever get around to analyzing in depth. All of these topics, needless to say, are fascinating, and each would be worthy of its own two-hour film. But Potter’s decision to squeeze them all into one movie cuts against her efforts to develop her aforementioned analyses of gender and reason; at just 71 minutes, the film simply can’t afford all the digressions that she wants to stick into it.
Still, even if it occasionally stumbles, The Party is on the whole a remarkably mesmerizing treat. Part of this certainly has something to do with its style: although all the action is set in just one location, Potter’s skillful manipulation of editing and cinematography ensures that the movie rarely feels staged. Yet in the end, the film’s dynamism also largely owes itself to the exceptional cast Potter has recruited. Clarkson is simply brilliant – while Scott Thomas, Murphy, and Spall all offer careful studies in the ways people use defense mechanisms to preserve their self-image. And together, all these actors pull off a feat that would have made Jean Renoir proud: they manage to turn their characters into laughingstocks without ever losing sight of said characters’ basic humanity. Even if you’re eventually left unimpressed by Potter’s analysis of contemporary social trends, that balancing act alone is more than enough to make The Party the first must-see film of 2018.
The Party (2017)
Starring: Patricia Clarkson, Bruno Ganz, Cherry Jones, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Kristin Scott Thomas, Timothy Spall
Running Time: 71 minutes
MPAA Rating: R, “for language and drug use.”
Produced by: Kurban Kassam, Christopher Sheppard
Written and Directed by: Sally Potter