Sally Potter’s (Orlando, Ginger & Rosa) eighth feature film, The Party, is a dark comedy, a political satire, and a family drama all tightly rolled into an entertaining film fronted by the likes of Kristin Scott Thomas, Cillian Murphy, Timothy Spall, and Patricia Clarkson.
The film is literally dark, too, since Potter filmed the feature in crisp black and white. The monochrome style, paired with the fact the film is shot entirely in one house, creates a thrilling sense of entrapment. It is not only the film’s dysfunctional characters who cannot escape the secrets that are inevitably about to unravel one-by-one but the audience, too. The black and white coloring means the viewer is constantly questioning the drama. The colorless style suggests truth and simplicity, with “good” and “bad” being very clearly defined categories, yet also exemplifies the act of performance each character succumbs to: none of them are truly themselves. Instead, the characters are all playing roles in order to live up to, often false, expectations.
It would be unfair to single out any of the cast members for their performance since all seven lead actors — Thomas, Cherry Jones, Murphy, Emily Mortimer, Spall, Clarkson, and Bruno Ganz — deliver memorable performances that are at once self-aware and understated. Clarkson delivers the best and sharpest lines; Murphy’s edginess makes the viewer grip their armchair, ready for the character to tip over the edge at any second; Mortimer blurs the line between self-imposed ignorance and innocence; Jones revels in her character’s professor status, attempting to apply logic to a logicless situation; Spall is almost as funny as Clarkson; Thomas, despite her character’s hubris, remains sympathetic throughout the film; and Ganz manages to make his character at once odd and obscure, yet, contrasted with his guests, relatively normal. It’s as if Potter’s characters are archetypes of different kinds of chaos, stemming from different kinds of secrets.
Potter and her cinematographer, Aleksei Rodionov, use the enclosed spaces of the house’s interiors to their advantage: sparingly-used close-ups become completely claustrophobic whilst, out in the garden, Rodionov’s framing becomes wider, signifying a sense of relief from the chaos unfolding inside. The camera mirrors the characters’ chaos. However, where Potter’s characters are victims of the chaos and anxiety that has been built up by layers of secrets, Potter’s camera remains in control. The audience is able to viscerally feel the characters’ panic, but always in the safe hands of Potter. It is as if the audience is the uninvited eight guest.
Without spoiling too much of the story, The Party begins with an unexpected guest. Who is this guest is? That’s for us to decipher. Before Potter reveals the guest at the door, she cuts to earlier in the evening, before the party has even begun. Of course, by the end of the film, we return to the door, finally clued-in about what goes on behind Number 14. The Party‘s circular narrative is not only a smart structural device, the circular motion also signifies how these characters are doomed to repeat the mistakes of their past, and, as The Party‘s opening suggests, their future.