When Sally Potter’s 1983 sophomore feature, Gold Diggers, finally came to the United States in 1988, Janet Maslin writing for The New York Times called the experimental, Julie Christie–starring film “torture.” Maslin was especially turned off by the 15-minute play-within-a-film sequence featuring a tap-dancing mime. British critics hailed Gold Diggers as “visually entrancing” and, for some, including me, it solidified Potter’s status as a wry, feminist satirist of the highest order, one whose adoration of theater and of classic silent cinema — and abhorrence of how women were treated in those films — had manifested in avant-garde riddles and one very jarring anti-musical.
Potter’s newest, The Party, could be the opposite of avant-garde. The film is a slim 75 minutes of dinner-party farce, like Buñuel meets Molière, grounded in Chekhov — there’s literally a gun introduced in the first act. Upon the occasion of Janet’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) ascension to the head of the British National Health Service, her small group of friends and colleagues join her for dinner. The guests are all embroiled in their own dramas, which all reach their own boiling points as the party implodes in rage, tears and declarations that democracy is dead.
Potter isn’t what you’d call subtle, but she also knows not to overstay her welcome, and this pithy comedy is a master class in all that a filmmaker can squeeze from the most basic theatrical concept: Put a bunch of characters with opposing motivations in a room and see what happens.
Janet’s husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), is the first act’s silent powder keg. While Janet is in the kitchen making her own victory dinner, Bill is sipping wine, staring out the sliding glass doors to his patio. He’s nearly entranced, and when the couple’s friends April (Patricia Clarkson) and Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) arrive, Bill is so distracted he can barely remember his own name and declares it doesn’t matter anyway. He’s cryptic in his dialogue, hinting that he holds a secret. Actually, he’s got a few.
Spall may play the powder keg, but Clarkson’s April holds the honor of lighting the fire, with theatrical dialogue, decrying the inefficiency of parliamentary politics and accusing her own faith-healer boyfriend of being a secret fascist. When another friend, Jinny (Emily Mortimer), announces she’s “with children,” pregnant with triplets, April responds with a toast about overpopulation and the demise of our planet.
Potter seems to divide the cast into the “calm” and the “unhinged,” with Thomas’ Janet as the medium center, which tempers the nearly unmanageable frenetic energy in the room. If Jinny is yelling about her hormones, her wife, Martha (Cherry Jones), is musing poetically about the nature of love. Potter is leaning into her archetypes here. If Gottfried is going to be woo-woo, then, by God, Potter is going to make every single line of his dialogue pertain to his Eastern-medicine-and-meditation belief system, spelling it out every chance she gets. At first, this practice can be annoying; we’re trained to want subtle character sketches in contemporary cinema, not caricatures. But Potter’s whole point is to examine these classic structures that have been ingrained in theater and now film for centuries — and she often swaps the genders. She’s hitting us over the head with her tap shoes again with The Party, but it’s altogether dizzying fun.