It would be easy to miss just how commitedly Sally Potter’s first film in five years operates as trenchant political satire, because that’s an incomplete definition for what she’s achieved. “The Party” is foremost a brilliant clockwork farce, brimming with wit and bile, the way Molière would do it, or Edward Albee. Featuring a veteran cast in top form and running just 71 minutes, this post-Brexit chamber piece hits like a fast jab to the face — one that bruises and draws blood.
It’s probably possible (especially for an American viewer) to coast through this film on its comedic set-ups and payoffs alone. The dialogue bristles like the iron spikes inside a medieval torture device, while Potter maneuvers her starry ensemble through a series of riotous interpersonal explosions with a born farceur’s callous glee.
“The Party” of the title is nominally a celebration hosted by and for Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas), a career politician who’s just been selected “shadow minister of health” by an unnamed and seemingly permanently out-of-power political sect. We know something’s darkly wrong from the plot proper’s first shot, which is of Janet’s political mastermind and husband Bill — an aging drunkard played by Timothy Spall with a ghastly glaze of horror in his eyes — fumbling for the needle on an audiophile turntable.
The guests arrive quickly, brandishing bitter bon mots like longswords. April (Patricia Clarkson) is Janet’s old friend and unoffical advisor, a bluntspoken “truth teller” whose deadpan brutishness always seems to be stifling a scream. Her trippy boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz) chants bromides like mantras. (April’s putdown likening Gottfried’s aromatherapist belief system to the Nazis might be this hilarious movie’s biggest laugh.)
Jinny (Emily Mortimer) rushes in with life-altering news for her aging partner Martha (Cherry Jones): Jinny’s in vitro-fertilization treatments have yielded a bumper harvest of male embryos, in triplicate. Meanwhile, the “wanker banker” Tom (Cillian Murphy) carries a gun beneath his jacket, plus apologies that his wife Marianne is running late. They will wait for her to arrive, the way Vladimir and Estragon once waited for Godot.
All four couples are enmeshed in a hidden rondelay of betrayals past and present, and as they tear at each other as if pulling off scabs, Potter skewers them like a social vivisectionist. The collective is a grim microcosm of the Obama-era Atlantic alliance: vaguely leftist Americans and Brits, plus one out-of-place German. Janet is totemically New Labor; Bill a Christopher Hitchens-esque secular humanist declaiming socialistic cant while skeletons dance in his eyes.
Everyone stands for something, until their assumptions get challenged or they feel a threat. Then the “bare poor forked animal” Shakespeare wrote about writhes to the surface, spitting blood through its fangs almost literally; in an early tip off, Bill looks up at the glass door leading to the garden and sees a trembling fox.
In the era of Brexit and alt-right internationalism, Potter bypasses the obvious targets for subtler ones. Forget Trumpism and Farage-ism: the dithering of the international liberal elite is the object of her unrelenting ire. Like Jean Renoir, who presciently anatomized pre-Vichy France in his deathless “Rules of the Game,” Potter takes aim at the self absorption of the leadership class, the ones who were supposed to save us all from the armies of the night.
Renoir lived to see French democracy crushed under the boot-heel of Adolph Hitler. Things in Britain and America haven’t gone quite that far. But a movie that begins with a character offhandedly stating “Democracy is over” and ends with a bloodstained caress and the words “How did we end up like this?” is clearly sounding an alarm.
For all its brittle hilarity, Potter has shot her film in black and white. In context, it plays as an avatar of artistic seriousness. Or a warning with implications worth heeding.