It begins with Kristen Scott-Thomas, in stark black-and-white, answering her door, hair askew, elegance frayed, eyes wild. She points a handgun right at the camera. Fade to black. Sally Potter has chosen a provocative way to start THE PARTY, her provocative black comedy about secrets, lies, and the dire consequences of telling the truth at the worst possible moment.
Flashback to earlier, when Janet (Scott-Thomas) is happily puttering in the kitchen and nattering on her phone as husband, Bill (Timothy Spall) sits in the living room, staring out into space, a look of absolute desolation on his face. Janet is oblivious, even as the guest arriving to celebrate her new government job can’t help but notice that something is wrong with the inert lump in the chair.
Friends arrive, singly or In pairs, showering congratulations on Janet, who is the soul of self-assured graciousness, and revealing their own bits of news, the import of which will shift as the evening progress towards a dinner hour that will never arrive. Instead, civilization will tear itself asunder as transgressions, past, present and putative, savaging everyone in attendance. Except for Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), who remains in the world, but not quite of it.
First there’s April (Patricia Clarkson), Janet’s dreamily acerbic best friend at the end of her relationship with Gottfried, a dreamily detached New Age philosopher who would rather sit on the floor in a meditative pose than engage with the negative energy swirling around him like the twister that took Dorothy to Oz. Then Martha (Cherry Jones), Bill’s oldest friend and fellow university professor, who is about to receive news from the love of her life, Jinny (Emily Mortimer) that makes them both happy. At first. Finally, Tom (Cillian Murphy), the expensively accoutered financier husband of Janet’s assistant, who is working late, but, Tom promises, will be along later. The first thing Tom does after making that promise, is excuse himself, go to the bathroom, and snort a great deal of something up his nose. It won’t be the first time that evening that he does and serves to explain most of the reason that he is so twitchy. But it might only be his fastidious nature, the one that forces him to swath himself in a towel to spare the expensive fabric of his suit, and to curse at the cheapness of the provisions he finds in his hosts’ bathroom.
The conversations are brisk, wry, rife with irony, and more revealing than the speakers intend. As is their body language, particularly Janet who is never far from the phone that never stops ringing, and the unheard voice on the other end with whom she flirts when she should be playing the perfect hostess. The guests break up into small groups of the course of an hour. They gossip about one another. They recover from both psychic shocks and the physical assaults from champagne corks and from each other, Janet’s stinging assertion that Martha is a first-rate lesbian and a second-rate thinker is at least as metaphorically shattering as what happens to a pane of glass at one point.
They ponder questions of intellect, politics, principles, and whether getting what you want is a blessing or a curse. Potter here is in prime form puncturing pretension while also exposing the anguish that these characters bring on themselves with their blithe condescension and unconscious selfishness. The slough of despond is deep, but it is also so absurd in its genesis, that there is nothing to do but laugh.
The action of THE PARTY may take place all in one modest flat, but the emotional roller-coaster makes it a psychological thriller of the utmost suspense. Screamingly funny and scathingly intelligent, it’s a cat-and-mouse game without the cat, and a perfect iteration of Sartre’s contention that Hell is other people.