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November 04, 2017

Denver Film Festival - The Party

the party  potter.jpg

Sally Potter - 2017
Roadshow Attractions

The first thing I noticed were those deep, haunted eyes. It took me a while to realize I was looking at Timothy Spall. He has lost a significant amount of weight since his previous screen appearance, as Holocaust denier David Irving in Denial. The harsh black and white cinematography makes Spall look even more gaunt. Sally Potter uses Spall's recently achieved thinness to her advantage as Spall plays the part of a former academic whose announcement of imminent death is the first of several revelations, bombshells really, shared with the guests in The Party.

The collection of vinyl albums may be shorthand for placing Spall's character as part of an older generation. In retrospect, the first song we hear, Bo Diddley's "I'm a Man", turns out to have been that character's declaration of independence, and as understood later, a reclamation of masculinity. Spall's character, Bill, is the husband to April, played by Kristin Scott Thomas. Taking place mostly inside a London home, April is celebrating her being named as Health Minister with a select group of friends in attendance. Bill is compared to Dennis Thatcher and Prince Philip for his taking the back seat to his more accomplished wife. His announcement of his terminal illness sets of a cascade of former secrets between the guests, the peeling of half a dozen onions, leading to death and murder. I should mention this is a comedy.

Potter's film is about identity politics. The two words individually or together are the subject of her investigation. This is made most clear when Cherry Jones' characters is described as "a first-rate lesbian, and a second-rate mind". Academia, sexual identity, and politics in its various forms are all skewered. The film takes place in the restricted spaces of a living room, kitchen, bathroom and rear patio. Politics are inescapably personal here.

The comedy is primarily verbal, especially with the aphorisms of "Life Coach" Bruno Ganz being shot down by soon to be ex Patricia Clarkson. Visually, especially with the frame filling close-ups, this looks like a horror movie. The film alternates with full shots that remind the viewer of the geography of that first floor of the house, so we know where everyone is in every scene. The previously mentioned lighting makes Timothy Spall appear virtually desiccated, but the other characters, especially Scott Thomas' April, hardly look much healthier. While discussions of the National Health are specifically British, other aspects, such as Cillian Murphy's coke snorting banker can be seen as an international archetype. The music is entirely diegetic, the turntable given a workout when it seems impossible to find just the right music during the grimmest of moments. And befitting the best comedies, Potter manages to save her best joke for the end of the film.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 4, 2017 09:38 AM