The premise of The Party — seven characters trapped in a house, for 71 minutes, as secrets are revealed and lives potentially irreparably changed — sounds like a play, but Sally Potter tells the story in a uniquely cinematic way.
“Have I been emotionally neglectful?”, Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) innocently asks her friend April (Patricia Clarkson) in the bathroom. In the living room next door, her husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), is literally suffocating and possibly dying. The walls are porous, but she’s completely oblivious to his suffering. It’s an apt metaphor for the problems in their marriage, which bubble to the surface one evening — along with the problems of all of their friends gathered at The Party.
The title of writer-director Sally Potter’s darkly funny film is itself a double entendre, referring to both the the gathering where the film is set and the reason for it, Janet’s parliamentary ascent to Shadow Health Minister. The personal is political, and characters’ behaviours at the party are a microcosm of how they live their lives: full of both good intentions and hypocrisies, inflected by the suffocating gender and political expectations of society at large.
Janet may have cracked a glass ceiling, but it doesn’t stop her friends, and her husband, from quickly stealing her thunder. Bill chooses this occasion to reveal that he has terminal cancer and he’s leaving Janet. Before the party has even begun, April has declared it’s her final night out with her current boyfriend, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz). Martha (Cherry Jones) and Jinny (Emily Mortimer) announce they’re having triplets. And Tom (Cillian Murphy) arrives high on cocaine, with a pistol strapped to his back, intent on stirring up trouble.
Potter establishes Bill as king of his domain, never lifting a finger to help his wife prepare for her party. The film opens on Bill in his living room, putting on some music (“I’m a man” by Bo Diddley, as if Bill needs to declare it to the world). He takes a seat on his chair at the centre of the living room, right between the speakers of his sound system, defiantly occupying space like a king on a throne. But the chair forces him to sit in an almost crumpled manner, a cue that Potter doesn’t take Bill nearly as seriously as he takes himself.
Janet, meanwhile, is in the kitchen, fulfilling the expectations of her gender: as April later explains, “doing a Thatcher. Proving she can still rustle up a canapé in the kitchen when necessary despite her political prowess.” As Janet fields congratulatory phone calls, Potter cuts back to Bill, never budging, but repeating to himself, with nasty disdain, words he hears his wife say on the phone. When Janet proclaims herself lucky to have such a supportive husband, it doesn’t jive with our first impression of Bill. So it’s only somewhat a surprise that, by the end, Bill becomes paranoid about “negative female energy”, and April has to remind him that “in the old days, you called yourself a feminist”.The premise of The Party — seven characters trapped in a house as secrets are revealed — sounds like a play, but it's uniquely cinematic.Click To Tweet
The premise of The Party — seven characters trapped in a house, for 71 minutes, as secrets are revealed and lives potentially irreparably changed — sounds like a play. The house itself serves as a theatre for the characters. The hallway and bathroom become a sort of backstage. Characters regularly go there to be truthful, or steel themselves for the public theatre of the living room. The living room is where the guests gather, drama happens, and characters perform for each other as much as for themselves. Bill’s throne, at the centre back of the room, sets it up as a sort of stage. When Janet gets down on her knees in front of Bill, declaring her devotion to quitting her job and taking care of him in his illness, we wonder if she’s genuinely overcome or if she’s performing the role of dutiful wife for her friends, her husband, and possibly even herself.
Although Potter clearly takes inspiration from the theatre, The Party is very specifically cinematic. The multiple spaces allow for simultaneous action, which we can often hear traces of through the sound design that bleeds from one room to the next. Almost every character’s life starts to go up in flames during the party, sometimes in separate rooms, where others are oblivious to problems not directly affecting them. They also each miss key information, divulged next door, which might actually affect them. This kind of chaos is impossible on stage, where different spaces are always separated by time: actors frozen in a tableau aren’t being deliberately negligent in the same way as Janet, in the bathroom, is oblivious to her husband’s near death.'This kind of chaos is impossible on stage, where different spaces are always separated by time.'Click To Tweet
Cinema is uniquely suited to giving its audience access to multiple subjective perspectives at a breakneck pace. When Tom is alone in the bathroom, getting high, sweating, and freaking out, the camera is as jittery and dynamic as he is, moving with him, and sometimes getting in close to him with the background blurred, mimicking his paranoid perspective. When Janet declares she’ll quite her new job to care for Bill as quid pro quo, Potter keeps just the two of them in frame, with Janet’s head wedged between Bill’s two wine glasses at either end of the frame. It’s a perfect metaphor for Janet feeling stuck between Bill’s indulgences, just when she was supposed to be celebrating professional success. It also puts us in their private, marital world. Martha’s hand, resting on the back of Bill’s chair, is often in frame: a reminder of her allegiance to Bill, her role in their troubles, and that the couple have an audience.
Potter’s deft use of cinematic techniques gets us deep into each character’s perspective, giving us seven intricate character portraits. Tom is driven by the desire to maintain the status quo in his life (his marriage) even as his actions make that impossible. Janet wants to effect political change, but becomes completely unbalanced at the thought of any change to her personal life, which Bill’s two major revelations set in motion. Even when she is decrying her career so she can play the carer, she’s still the politician. After Gottfried’s digression about roads in Rome, Janet expertly brings things back to her chosen subject without a pause: “The only road that matters now is the road to Bill’s recovery”.'Martha ends up being the kind of feminist who merely wants admission to the boys’ club.'Click To Tweet
Jinny’s name stands out as suspiciously similar to Janet’s, setting up the newly pregnant couple as a foil to the childless Bill and Janet. Jinny fulfills the gender expectations that Janet has both rebelled against and forgone to rise to the top: she’s an expectant mother and a chef, the picture of domesticity. Martha, also an academic like Bill, fancies herself a modern feminist, teaching gender studies, pointing out gender inequalities (her early jibe at Bill: “letting Janet do the catering? That’s good of you.”). Bill doesn’t teach feminism, but it seems a point of pride that he gave up a professorship at Yale so that Janet could continue her political ambitions. Yet Martha ends up being the kind of feminist who merely wants admission to the boys’ club. She wears a pant suit and short hair, she aligns herself with Bill, and she’s complicit in his deception of his wife. Worse, she refers to her wife’s pregnant state as “taking care of the animal side of things.” Though professing to be working for change for women, the prospect of domestic change in her own life terrifies her.
Potter’s scathing satire implicates everyone — even the bystanders. Throughout the film, April remains on the periphery, fashioning herself as a dispassionate, insightful observer. She gets all the best one-liners — “Marriage really is an insufferably smug institution”; “Tickle an aromatherapist and you find a fascist” — and prides herself on pointing out other people’s hypocrisies. She’s also the only one to repeatedly bring people’s attention back to Janet’s achievement and that the party is in her honour. Yet April’s sardonic remarks are themselves attention-seeking, and her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, whom she constantly mocks, is the catalyst for the worst chauvinistic behaviour at the party. She may not be actively participating in the drama, but her insistence on essentially staying out of it is itself a statement. It’s exactly how she approaches broader politics, too, and it makes her part of the problem.Potter’s scathing satire implicates everyone — even the bystanders.Click To Tweet
The film’s one major flaw is its reliance on incestuous coincidence as a driver for much of the personal tension. One character we never meet is the impetus for the crisis in the lives of at least half the characters. The final scene strains believability, even as it winks right at you, asking you to laugh. But Potter just about gets away with it because her characters exist in a heightened world: Chekhov’s gun arrives at the start, and the film is shot in black and white, as a reminder that it’s not quite realistic. The level of wit in the dialogue, and the speed at which it all unfolds, would be perfectly acceptable as theatre, where you suspend disbelief for linguistic style. It works on film because, although these characters are all three-dimensional and fully realized by tremendous performers, the precision with which Potter points out their hypocrisies means we’re already in the land of satire. It’s an exhilarating and very funny ride.
You may also be interested in our interview with writer-director Sally Potter on the making of The Party. Lone Scherfig (Their Finest) is another master at directing ensemble films. Last year, we talked to Scherfig about her latest ensemble film, Their Finest, and why it’s so difficult to direct scenes featuring many actors. Sam Mendes’ James Bond film Spectre also takes much inspiration from the theatre, including Mendes’ production of King Lear, to create a uniquely cinematic experience.