Cinema may be an art form rooted in movement, but that doesn’t mean it requires sprawling set pieces to be effective. An excellent case in point is writer/director Sally Potter’s The Party, a film that functions much like a stage play, confining its characters to one claustrophobic set for its entire running time. Potter offers no escape from the pit of intellectual vipers she creates, either for the characters themselves or for the audience watching them tear each other apart. Though The Party feels somewhat slight at a whirlwind 71 minutes, Potter packs a full-length feature’s worth of acerbic wit and demented satire into this diminutive package.
The film opens with a woman answering a door with a gun leveled at whatever poor soul happened to knock. In flashback, we learn that this woman is Janet (an exceptional Kristin Scott Thomas), the door is her own, and she’s both hostess and guest of honor at the titular party. Although we won’t discover until the final frames who was on the receiving end of her grim welcome, we gradually find that almost any one of her guests might have deserved such a greeting. Was it her philandering husband, played by Timothy Spall, who sits drunk and nearly motionless through the film’s first act? Or maybe it was soulless, cocaine-addled investment banker Tom (Cillian Murphy), who attended the party with ulterior motives? Or could it be Janet’s closest friend and adviser April (Patricia Clarkson)? The list of possibilities could go on, and the potential motives are myriad, but Potter isn’t here for a whodunnit.
Instead, Potter’s film is a satirical look at the inner lives of the allegedly evolved upper crust, those in positions of power and influence who are still, at their core, driven by the same imperatives as everyone else. Beneath their veneer of civility and class, Potter’s characters are really just animals trying to meet their own needs, often at the expense of others. They struggle with challenging prospects like love triangles (or squares?), childbirth and mortality the same as anyone else — they just do so more eloquently.
Since Potter has entrapped her cast in a confined setting, the name of the game here is character development. The film reads like a short David Mamet stage play shot in black and white, and Potter’s dialogue is clearly in the Mametian vein. Clarkson gets all the best one-liners, though Spall and Murphy get their digs in as well. But it’s Scott-Thomas who steals the show, vacillating between steely resolve, gracious if superficial hospitality and unchecked rage at the drop of a hat.
The Party is defined by its exemplary performances, and there isn’t a false beat among them. Though the film’s restrictive staging may render it somewhat uncinematic, the complexity that Potter imparts to her characters and their dynamic interactions more than makes up for the staginess of its production. Without spoiling any pertinent plot points, the narrative’s circular construction hinges on a major reveal in the final scene that gives the film a slightly unfinished quality bordering on the anti-cathartic. Still, it’s a tremendous accomplishment from a screenwriting perspective — Potter’s party may not be one you’d want to be invited to, but it’s certainly one worth watching from a distance. Rated R for language and drug use.
Opens Friday at Fine Arts Theatre.