At first, Sally Potter’s latest film seems like her most conventional, at least on the surface, revolving around the events that ensue at a dinner party held to celebrate Janet’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) ascension to Health Minister for the United Kingdom (we never find out her surname, or any of the characters’ surnames). Less an ensemble cast than a typology of characters, the other members of this party include her husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), her best friend April (Patricia Clarkson) and her new partner Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), Bill’s old friend Martha (Cherry Jones) and her partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer) and, finally, Tom (Cillian Murphy), the husband of one of Janet’s colleagues. Between these characters and couples, an array of topics play out that are so predictable in their topicality – the state of the health system, Baby Boomers confronting mortality, queer parenthood – that the film almost feels like a parody of the dinner party genre than a serious or earnest contribution to it. That’s only enhanced by the fact that each actor seems to be playing a parodic version of their own screen persona, drawing upon the way they have been typecast in popular culture as much as the contingencies of the narrative unfolding in front of them. Whether it’s Jones playing the lesbian professor, Mortimer playing the shrinking waif, Ganz playing the pontificating Continental philosopher, or Murphy playing the manic drug addict, that subsumption of each actor into their received persona quickly gives the film a discontinuous feeling, with actions and reactions appearing out of nowhere, and vanishing just as quickly.
All of that is perhaps to say that this is a remarkably actorly film, since Potter often seems to be interested in the actors’ bodies, and their relationships to space, as much as anything else. That’s especially the case for the male actors, with Spall doing little more than inhabiting one posture more grotesquely and obtusely as the film proceeds – a posture enhanaced by his recent and quite disorienting weight loss – and Murphy simply moving manically from one part of the house to the other rather than evincing “character” in any conventional way. While The Party may never quite feel like an adapted play, then, it does feel “staged” in quite a deliberate manner, as Potter’s distorted close-ups, dissonant jazz score and weird bursts of sounds at unexpected moments – a helictoper in the distance, a nursery rhyme jingle coming from next door – combine to create quite a disarming and compelling sense of absurdity in the opening minutes. At some moments, the interactions between these characters and bodies are quite peremptory, while at others they’re quite distended, building a surreal sense of place and time that works against the cloistered, chambered insularity that this dinner party mode usually works to create. Of course, part of the point of dinner party films is to gradually dismantle this insularity as a fantasy, and to expose the dinner party’s continuity with the wider world, but The Party acknowledges it as a fantasy from the outset, leaving the film that follows in a kind of tonal and optic freefall.
What that reveals, perhaps, is that dinner party films are the ultimate affirmation of bourgeois ideology, just because they reveal how flexibly that ideology can incorporate acknowledgments of its own limitations, contrivances and fantasies. While dinner party films normally feature some disruption to the sanctity, and supposedly apolitical exceptionalism, of the middle-class home, they’re either able to absorb that disruption, or at least frame their prescience of the disruption itself as an indication of bourgeois flexibility and adaptability. In the case of The Party, however, the space is already disrupted from the outset, with the opening scenes playing, stylistically, like the ending of a typical dinner party film. As a result, the “intrusion” of politics into this sacrosanct space is never presented as a twist, or as a rupture, even as the space is never presented as a fully politicised space either. Instead, politics ramifies in disorienting and destabilising ways, never quite leaving the space, but never quite being absorbed into it either, a situation encapsulated in Janet’s relation to her new post as Health Minister. As the party proceeds, she’s never quite able to separate the private and public connotations of this position, whether because she is having an affair with one of her subordinates, or because April repeatedly and programmatically reminds her that “I may not believe in parliamentary politics, but I absolutely believe in you,” as if parodically performing the dissociation of politics from personal expression upon which this kind of dinner party exercise, and its absorption of the political, usually depends.
That bind is clearest, however, in Bill’s revelation that has been diagnosed with a terminal condition, a revelation that becomes even more troubling when it emerges that he short-circuited the public health system to receive a private consultation – a very bad look for the husband of a Health Minister who has spent her career extolling the virtues of public health. On top of that, Bill is actually Marxist professor of philosophy himself, and has always believed that every health condition can be directly linked back to class coordinates. While Janet reminds him that she has always agreed that “health is a political issue,” the negotiation of their personal and political selves that has appeared to have stood them in good stead throughout their relationship breaks down in these scenes, especially once Bill reveals that he is leaving Janet for Tom’s wife, with whom he has been carrying on a covert affair at Martha’s apartment. Far from politics intruding and then politely withdrawing from this dinner party, then, we start with a situation in which politics already seems to have been “resolved” into the characters’ interpersonal interactions, only for that resolution to be called into question. For that reason, The Party often feels like a sequel, or even an epilogue – it is only 71 minutes long – to the dinner party genre as a whole, evoking an outside world that can’t be contained in anything as pithy as a conclusion, or a final scene. To that end, Potter falls back upon what can only be described as a parodic finale, as if only the greatest and most violent act of contrivance could enable this kind of film to end at all.
That wariness of resolution doesn’t just involve the final scene of the film, however, but informs a broader scepticism of the kinds of pithy aphorism that tend to characterise the dinner party mode. While there are some brilliant one-liners – “tickle an aromatherapist and you discover a fascist” – they never quite land within the party as a whole, where they’re set adrift in odd voids between the characters, partly because April, in particular, arrogates a kind of anti-aphoristic responsibility, berating even the most apparently innocuous nuggets of middle-class wisdom and complacency. As she grows more eviscerating in her comments, Potter’s lighting grows harsher and more expressionistic, turning the ostensible classicism of her black-and-white cinematography into a kind of ugliness principle, and a way of dismantling the consummate tact and tastefulness that these characters have erected around themselves. By about halfway through, the dialogue has become more or less jettisoned from the events unfolding in front of it, and instead abstracted into a kind of ossified bourgeois discourse, suffused with free-flowing passive-aggressive energy, one bid for status after another, and a mindless insistence on “debate” over even the smallest and most insignificant of statements, even or especially when there are bigger topics of concern.
In some ways, I found this last part of the film quite unpleasant, and quite tedious to watch, although that may also be the point. Although The Party barely spans an hour, it feels interminable in these later stages, as Potter’s parody of middle-class conversation almost turns into a parody of art cinema, or what we expect from art cinema. For that reason, I experienced a strong sense of déjà vu during these closing scenes as well, since they often reminded me of my first experiences with art cinema in the 1990s, a time when art cinema itself was probably associated with a stricter set of expectations and experiences than it is now – the very expectations and experiences so persistently parodied here. Yet Potter’s motivations seem to go beyond a formalist riff on an outdated art cinema mode as well, or at least to use this antiquated mode of liberal expression as a way of gesturing towards a broader malaise at the heart of British politics. By the final moments, it feels as if we are witnessing a self-defeating Baby Boomer drive towards “debate” as an end goal of politics that is as dissonant as it is divisive, and as contrived in its connection to political realism as the most staid and affected art cinema aspiration. Conservative even as it insists upon its liberalism, the discourse and dialogue of the film ossifies as it proceeds, until it looks like little more than an excuse for inaction, or a form of inaction, than a proposition in itself.
For that reason, The Party feels like a dinner party film made for neoliberal Britain, and especially for post-Brexit Britain, outlining a space in which the very premise of middle class life – a cloistered and exceptional domesticity – is no longer available, but in which the structures of feeling that drove that premise are still circulating in destructive, dissonant and contradictory ways. Halfway through, it emerges that the “party” refers to the characters’ shared political party as much as the party they are attending, but as the film proceeds that sense of political affiliation grows looser and looser, until their mutual party seems to connote the system, or their sense of class, rather than any strict set of beliefs. Unable to ignore the fact that an outside exists, but equally unwilling to discard the inside that enabled it as a fantasy in the first place, the characters in the film finally seem to occupy a space that feels at once utterly irrelevant and alarmingly powerful, carving out their own non-existence at the expense of everyone and everything around them. That strange sense of absence may be why I didn’t quite feel like I’d seen a film after emerging from The Party – I didn’t have any sense of being sequestered from the outside world – but that frustration may also be the film’s greatest asset, and its gesture of inchoate resistance.