A tepid farce that that combines the brevity of a one-act play with the lo-fi desperation of a student film, “The Party” is the kind of star-studded misfire that might only have made sense in the context of an artistic movement like Dogme 95, whose strict dictums could have explained its experimental zeal and excused its fundamental shabbiness. Of course, such formal recklessness is par for the course when it comes to the cinema of Sally Potter, a British dynamo whose work ranges from a radical adaptation of Virgina Woolf’s “Orlando” to an erotic Joan Allen drama that’s spoken entirely in iambic pentameter. But if the dazzling eccentricities of Potter’s previous films might help to prepare viewers for her latest trick, their intellectual rigor casts this new one in a strange and unflattering light. It’s different, yes, and made with conviction. But it also feels flimsy, hollow, and tossed off — a shrill trifle from someone who’s previously made only multi-tiered soufflés.
Shot in a digital black-and-white that recalls the plastic, high-contrast look of “Sin City, “The Party” runs (or crawls) only 71 minutes, but its problems are evident from the very first one. The opening shot — a dippy flash-forward that’s meant to serve as our invitation — finds Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) opening the front door of her London flat and pointing a gun at the unseen guest who made the mistake of knocking. Thomas immediately appears as strained as the framing device that introduces her, and her performance never really recovers.
Fortunately, there’s a lot of other nonsense to distract from this wobbly start and everything it portends, and Thomas won’t be the only brilliant actor who’s stranded at sea. Observe the great Timothy Spall (playing Bill, Janet’s husband) as he fiddles with the record player, parks himself in the living room, and stares at the garden outside with a lobotomized blankness. There’s a good reason for Bill’s fugue state, and his problems are a lot more pressing than the knowingly bourgeois bullshit that preoccupies the other characters, but the only interesting thing about him remains the coyote that he spies nipping through the backyard. It’s a lame bit of symbolism, but an accurate one — the small cluster guests that Janet has invited to celebrate her recent appointment as Britain’s new health minister are a carnivorous bunch, shameless scavengers of love and kindness.
The most fun (and the funniest) of the lot is undoubtedly April, who Patricia Clarkson embodies as a truth-telling tornado. As blunt as she is bitter, April announces herself to the shindig by declaring that she’s ready to dump her longtime boyfriend (a daffy spiritualist played by “Wings of Desire” great Bruno Ganz).
While most of the dialogue in this relentlessly shrill satire makes “The Party” feel like a manic sitcom remake of a Chekhov play, April is gifted with a few choice lines that speak to the film’s interest in how seldom the fantasy of relationship goals squares with the act of punting them. “I expect the worse of everyone in the name of realism,” she offers, immune to even the plot’s most ludicrous twists and reversals. April isn’t fazed by Cillian Murphy’s coked up “wanker banker,” and she hardly bats an eye when Jinny (Emily Mortimer) tells her partner Martha (Cherry Jones) that they’re expecting triplets. Her apathy alone is enough to make her the film’s most relatable character.
Over time, Potter’s mirth achieves enough momentum to overcome the story’s haphazard staging, and “The Party” grows more enjoyable as it spirals out of control. Everyone is in disguise and everyone is afraid of losing each other. “Have I wasted my life on a mirage?” one character asks amidst all of the political sniping and amusingly over-cranked sound effects (every punch sounds like it was thrown by Batman), but Potter doesn’t have an answer ready for them. She eventually heats the water to a boil, but her film ends long before she can find anything worth cooking in it.
“The Party” premiered in Competition at the 2017 Berlin Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.