The Party


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In her quasi-memoir Naked Cinema: Working with Actors, Sally Potter recalls the catalysing forces that set her on the path to becoming a filmmaker. There was the grandmother whose tales of performing on the West End stage revealed “a wicked irreverence for what was considered proper in pursuit of what she felt to be true.” There was the moment when she looked through the view finder of an 8mm camera for the first time and was smitten, aged 14, by the realisation that “framing the world – in black and white – made my heart beat faster”. Then there was the time she saw Patti Smith play live in New York’s Central Park. Suddenly she understood the appeal of performing on a bigger stage.[i] 

That’s what cinema has always been for this protean British filmmaker: a bigger stage – and it’s hard not to think of these biographical details watching Potter’s caustic new film The Party. A drawing-room farce (one that just happens to have been shot in crisp black and white), it finds Potter on lively form, serving up a mischievous deconstruction of British politics via a dinner party gone spectacularly wrong. It’s the sort of film UK directors tend to shy away from; a movie that embraces its inherent staginess, eschewing kitchen-sink realism in favour of finely tuned hysteria and an ending that arrives almost before it has begun. Yet there’s no denying the cinematic prowess at work, or the fact that it’s her most accessible film since Orlando, that supposedly unfilmable adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s centuries-spanning tale.  

Building The Party around a female politician (played by Kristin Scott Thomas), Potter can’t resist the odd reference to the gender-challenging politics of that earlier hit. “Looks like a girl, acts like a man, androgynous soul, always had true grit,” is best-friend April’s assessment of Scott Thomas’s Janet (April is played with eye-rolling disdain by Patricia Clarkson). It’s not long before we see why such gender-fluid traits are necessary in the cutthroat world of modern politics: Potter lines up a veritable rogue’s gallery of agenda-laden friends and colleagues and pits them against one another in the pressure-cooker-like environs of a dinner party to celebrate Janet’s promotion to Shadow Health Minister.  

The dinner-party scenario, of course, has a long been perfect for exposing the fissures inherent in any group dynamic. Whether it’s Martha and George tearing strips off each other in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Dir. Mike Nichols, 1966) or the monstrous Abigail forcing Demis Roussos records on her embarrassed guests in Abigail’s Party (Dir. Mike Leigh, 1977), the enforced politesse of an intimate gathering practically guarantees Vesuvius-like emotional eruptions at some point in the evening.  

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Potter references both those aforementioned classics in The Party, ratcheting up the discomfort with Abigail-style needle-drops – Howling Wolf, Purcell, Gershwin – and naming one character (a feminist academic described as a “first-class lesbian and second-rate thinker”) after Elizabeth Taylor’s Martha (she’s played by Cherry Jones).   

But the film’s title refers as much to Janet’s political party as it does her soirée. Though never identified as a Labour politician, Janet is left-leaning in her views and her other guests – who include Cillian Murphy as a coked-up banker, Bruno Ganz as an aphorism-spouting life coach and Emily Mortimer as Martha’s newly pregnant wife – help transform the film into a satirical portrait of the crisis in the Labour party, albeit one dated by its failure to anticipate Jeremy Corbyn’s recent resurgence. To be fair, Potter wrote the script in the run-up to the 2015 election. Inspired by a desire to evoke “the chronic insincerity” of the campaign[ii], she ensures Janet and her friends are full of compromised ideals and contradictory ideas, forever debating whether principles could or should be temporarily recalibrated (or sacrificed altogether) in order to secure power.  

Janet is even compared to Margaret Thatcher, with husband Bill inevitably talked of as her dutiful Dennis. Yet some critics have also been quick to draw parallels with Hilary Clinton,  

particularly her desperation to crack the glass ceiling without frightening off voters who think powerful women don’t know their way around a kitchen.[iii] In this “post-modern, post-post-feminist” scenario, Timothy Spall’s catatonic Bill also represents the old guard of the intellectual Left, his noted physical resemblance to the late Christopher Hitchens[iv] deliberately countered by a very un-Hitchens-like despondency: sickly, ineffective and a little pathetic, he’s been cowed by a world he no longer understands and, more to the point, no longer has much use for men like him.  

But everybody is heading towards meltdown in The Party. As emotions run high and secrets and lies are divulged and exposed (against a backdrop of burning vol-au-vents), decades’ worth of friendships, political allegiances, and partnerships start falling apart. Is it a metaphor for Brexit in this sense? Coincidentally the Brexit vote came in the middle of the film’s 12-day shoot and while Potter has said she didn’t make any changes to the script, but she has acknowledged that that the result “changed the subtext” of the film.[v] In this respect, The Party joins God’s Own Country (Dir. Francis Lee, 2017) another recent Brit flick that had its meaning altered in the aftermath of the referendum.[vi] The Party’s 71-minute real-time structure, for instance, feels emblematic of the way personal and collective certainties can be thoroughly upended in a heartbeat.  

That Potter should be so attuned to rapidly shifting political landscapes isn’t all that surprising. Opportunities for filmmakers, particularly women filmmakers, even in the late 1970s heyday of punk when she started, were few and far between. Potter embraced the DIY spirit of punk instead, joining the London Film-maker’s collective as a 16-year-old drop-out and rounding out her education performing in guerrilla theatre groups, studying art for a year at St Martin’s College, and then dance and choreography for another year at The Place in London.[vii] She made her first films while living in squats with friends and her nine features to date have explored everything from gender politics (The Gold Diggers, Orlando) and immigration issues (The Man Who Cried, Yes) to celebrity culture (Rage) and the Cold War (Ginger and Rosa). Though all are radically different (she’s made films in iambic pentameter, with new media, and with Johnny Depp), they bear the unmistakable stamp of a self-taught auteur who has devoted her creative life to experimenting with form in order to find the best way to represent the world as she finds it at any given moment. With The Party she’s ended up making an absurd romp. But that’s okay. These are absurd times. 

 

Alistair Harkness 

Film Critic, The Scotsman
October 2017  


[i] Sally Potter, Naked Cinema: Working with Actors (London, Faber & Faber, eBook, 2014), loc 112, 133, 164.

 

[ii] Sally Potter, quoted by Geoff Andrew in ‘Sally Potter’s fast and furious farce’, Sight & Sound, http://www.bfi.org.uk/news-opinion/sight-sound-magazine/reviews-recommendations/party-sally-potter-fast-furious-farce

 

[iii] Sophie Meyer, ‘The Party’, Review, Sight & Sound, November 2017, pp. 60-61

 

[iv] ibid.

 

[v] Potter, quoted by Guy Lodge in ‘There’s nothing like hearing a whole place erupt with laughter’, The Observer, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/oct/08/sally-potter-interview-the-party

 

[vi] Alistair Harkness, ‘Behind the scenes of God’s Own Country’, The Scotsman, http://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/culture/film/film-interview-behind-the-scenes-of-god-s-own-country-1-4540456

 

[vii] Potter, Naked Cinema: Working with Actors, loc 136-348.

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