FILM REVIEW: THE PARTY Is a Parody that Invites You Into the World of the Obnoxiously Self-Involved
The dark comedy satire about the lives of pedantic self-absorbed characters may not be new—not if a certain Mr. Woody Allen and his disciples have anything to say about it. Indie filmmaker Sally Potter (Ginger & Rosa) takes a stab at the genre, infusing her new film, The Party (which had its premiere last year at the Berlin International Film Festival), with the unique and welcome perspective of what happens when it is the women behaving badly alongside the men. Though the film is obnoxious and grating at times—arguably, purposefully, much like its protagonists—its crisp runtime and incisive jabs at the elite make for an enjoyable viewing experience that knows when to stop itself before falling off the rails.
We encounter first Janet, played by Kristin Scott Thomas, a self-described idealist who is hosting the titular party to celebrate her appointment as Minister of Health in the U.K., a highlight in a life-long political career. Janet is giddy and in control at first, though the happenings of the subsequent 71 minutes send her into a spiral that is telegraphed in the opening scene of The Party—with her maniacally wielding a gun. What a change for Scott Thomas as the proper Mrs. Churchill at yet another film festival.
As Janet prepares the accoutrements for her guests, we are treated to her husband, sitting with a deranged and lost look in his face in the living room next door, listening to exasperatingly loud music. The husband, Bill, is played with the signature cooky-eyed mania by Timothy Spall. He holds a devastating secret or three that, when exposed, will shatter the already fragile peace that exists amongst the incoming attendees.
When they do arrive, we meet April, a cynic and sarcastic woman played by (who else) Patricia Clarkson, and her new German boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), another crazy-looking old man with one too many strange views on the values of Western medicine. Another pair soon enters the picture, the disparately-aged lesbians Martha and Jinny (Cherry Jones and Emily Mortimer), with their emotional baggage and their bun(s) in the oven. Tom, the effusive Cillian Murphy, eventually completes the septate, though his wife Mary Ann is supposed to be—but is, intriguingly—not with him.
No soon has the soiree began that the characters’ contempt and disdain for each other become apparent via a series of venom-filled volleys meant to attack the core of their very beings. The idealists contempt the romantics, who look down on the materialists, who scoffs at the cynic, who in turn believes herself smarter than everyone else. Each character is a cliché of the personalities they are meant to embody, painful clichés at that, but it becomes apparent upon closer inspection that causing this vexation is quite clearly the point.
From the use of loud music to buzzing, interrupting cellphone sounds, Potter creates a crescendo that, like nails on chalkboard, grate you with each passing moment. And though The Party does not ever reach a logical landing (indeed, it instead spirals helplessly out of control), at least it knows to quite before it enters terminal velocity stage, or perhaps burnout upon reentry.
In The Party, each actor is precisely cast to convey the hackneyed persona they are meant to play. Clarkson is a natural cynic, with her jagged features and stony expression. Jones is an inherently empathetic actress, with her mother-like smile and unassuming features. Spall looks crazy even in repose, and Murphy has essentially played a drug-snorting, out-of-control man every time he plays a villain. It is only Ms. Scott that is somewhat out of her element, but welcomingly so, given her dearth and range as an actress. She navigates Janet several mood swings and contradictions deftly, becoming the only character you can sympathize with even if you find purchase in one or more of the other players’ world philosophies.
The tangled web at the center of the plot is not as complex as you may think from the foregoing. Bill is dying but he is also cheating, a juxtaposition of exists from Jill’s life sufficient to send her into a spiral and to propel the others into existential crises of their own. Tom’s bringing of a gun to the gathering only ups the ante and raises the stakes, giving you a sense that something bigger is right around the corner.
The Party is suffused with clever lines about the world, about politics, about life, about political philosophy. All the characters are highly educated and/or successful, they are all smarter than the next and smarter than their own good. At the same time, they are all ridiculous and/or pathetic, incorrigible and exasperating to the point of unlikable for whatever exaggerated personality trait it may be. In that sense, the movie achieves maximum self-effation, its contempt for its characters is its contempt for itself and perhaps even for us. The elites acting like babies, the smart ones acting like dunces.
You may not come back for desert after how this evening is going to go, but you will be secretly glad you came.