THE PARTY — Review by Moira Sullivan

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THE PARTY POSTERSally Potter’s eighth feature The Party occupies a sitting room, kitchen, garden and bathroom populated by veteran actors Kristin Scott Thomas, Cherry Jones Cillian Murphy, Emily Mortimer, Timothy Spall and Patricia Clarkson. The skill of the dialogue in this sitting room drama written by the UK independent filmmaker moves the film forward but equally important are ten carefully selected songs that punctuate the gathering. These have significance for each of the scenes and are inseparable from the images. With the exception of a British anthem, the selections are recorded by international artists – arias, ballads, jazz and rhythm and blues, ska, and tango. Continue reading…

The Party is introduced by a flash forward of the closing scene, a close-up of a lion door-knocker similar to the one that ornaments the residence of the Prime Minister on 10 Downing Street in London. Through the door emerges Janet (Kristen Scott Thomas), the newly elected minister of her party looking anguished and distressed. To commemorate Janet’s new parliamentary post, “Jerusalem” is played, arranged by Fred Frith and Sally Potter and written by Sir Charles Parry. It is a nationalist anthem composed to muster up British resolve during the Great War, inspired by a poem by William Blake. Behind the camera is cinematographer Aleksei Rodionov who worked on Potter’s Orlando (1992) but The Party does not have any of the embellishments of costume, editing, cinematography or sound of her previous work. The film is a straightforward treatise on old friends in modern London.

In the opening scene, Bill, Janet’s husband (Timothy Spall) takes the arm of a phonograph and places the needle on the grooves of an LP of rhythm and blues master Bo Diddley singing “I’m a Man”. Bill is referred to as the DJ and the party as a “a disco”. He looks horribly forlorn and lost as a crafty fox in the garden peers in at the threshold.

The first guests of the party to arrive are April (Patricia Clarkson) and her older husband – Gottfried (Bruno Ganz). April announces that she and Gottfried are separating after the “the last supper” and spends the evening hurling insults at him. She congratulates Janet for winning the election although “democracy is dead”. Janet is preoccupied with fielding calls of congratulation on her cell phone. Bill aptly switches to Cole Porter’s jazz standard “What is this Thing called Love”. Gottfried sits on the living room carpet in lotus style assuming his role as a spiritual healer.

American women’s studies professor Martha (Cherry Jones) and her partner Jinny (Emily Mortimer), a cook, are the next guests to arrive. April refers to Martha as “a first-class lesbian and a second-class thinker” which must be due to her field: “domestic labor gender differentiation in American utopianism”.

Although Janet has been elected to a ministerial post, the evening’s agenda is anything but congratulatory as other problems take over. One of two announcements come from Martha and Jinny who reveal that they are expecting triplets though April wonders what is so special about bringing children into an overpopulated world. As Janet’s closest friend, April’s abundant wise counsel and opinions of the guests are the centerfold of The Party.

Jinny demands that Martha let the guests know how happy they are as Bill carefully inspects his next LP to celebrate “the miracle of conception” as Gottfried calls it – “Ay, Candela” by Cuban composer Faustino Oramas Osario – Fire I’m Burning. At the same time, in the kitchen among the canapes Janet receives a call from someone who is her paramour.

Tom arrives, a successful banker (Cilian Murphy) and his first stop is the bathroom where he snorts cocaine and makes sure his revolver sits snug in its holster under his coat jacket. While George Gershwin’s aria “Summertime” floats in and out rooms, Tom apologizes for Marianne who will be delayed – “the queen of spin” as April calls her, who will share an office with Janet as her subordinate.

As if a gun and cocaine aren’t enough to change the mood of the party, the music stops when Bill makes his announcement marking the midpoint of The Party. During his revelation about terminal illness and infidelity, he walks over to the phonograph to retrieve John Coltrane’s sax ballad “My One and Only Love”. Everyone is shocked by his announcement as Cuban pianist Ruben Gonzalez plays “Como siento yo”– “As I feel”. Janet locks herself in the bathroom to Jamaican guitarist Ernest Ranglin’s ska –Surfin’. April reminds her through the closed door that the party guests have all known each other for about 30 years and have undergone shifts of political and romantic allegiance. Now that Janet is part of the political establishment, she and her circle of friends seems to have spun out of their comfort zones.

Tom knocks out Bill who falls on the carpet floor to Purcell’s aria “When I Am Laid In Earth” but rips off the record to put on Bucharest violin virtuoso Grigoras Dinicu and his lively “Ciociarlia “, followed by Portuguese guitarist Carlos Paredes’ “Verdes Anos”. The party concludes with “Emancipación”, a tango written in 1955 by the Argentinian Alfredo Bevilacqua for the Republic of Chile.

Potter’s music represents the emotional undercurrents and concerns of her gathering – love, betrayal, gender equality, political ideology and activism, same sex parenting and even premeditated murder. As each issue emerges the music is reshuffled with rhyme and reason.

On its debut at the Berlinale the film won the “Guild Film Prize,” presented by a jury of owners of German art house cinemas.

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Moira Sullivan

Moira Sullivan is an international film critic, scholar, lecturer, promoter and experimental filmmaker based in San Francisco. She is a member of FIPRESCI (Federation of International Film Critics) and has a PhD in cinema studies. Sullivan is one of the world's experts on the work of the legendary filmmaker Maya Deren (1917-1961). A native of San Francisco, Sullivan wrote her doctoral thesis and subsequent publication on Maya Deren's avantgarde and ethnographic filmmaking. Sullivan has been invited to special universities and art schools honoring Maya Deren in Italy, France, Germany, Sweden and the USA. Since 1995 Sullivan has been a staff writer for Movie Magazine International, San Francisco and does weekly radio reports on film reviews, film events and festivals. She also writes from named for Agnès Varda.