“There’s nowhere to hide in this film,” Eugene Hernandez, deputy director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, said to Sally Potter Tuesday night, after her latest film—The Party— screened to a full house.
“Well, there is the bathroom—with a lock on the door,” she replied with a wry smile.
In Potter’s pitch-black, claustrophobic comedy, a stellar ensemble including Kristin Scott Thomas, Patricia Clarkson, Timothy Spall, Emily Mortimer, Cherry Jones, Cillian Murphy, and Bruno Ganz tussles for a lean 71 minutes. While too many plot details threaten to spoil a delicious denouement, here’s the gist: an eclectic mix of guests gather at Janet’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) elegant London home to toast to her new appointment as health minister, a seeming boon in an increasingly bleak political moment. But, by night’s end, their verbal sparring, accompanied by a slate of life-altering revelations (from adultery to a medical diagnosis), derails any hopes of a sit-down dinner. And then there’s that pesky Chekhovian gun . . .
Though the characters themselves are not quick to laugh aloud as their evening grows ever more explosive, their antics (plus several choice zingers from Clarkson, as evident in an exclusive clip below) left the audience in collective stitches. This was hardly an accident on Potter’s part.
Sitting in the Bowery Hotel’s sunlit courtyard Tuesday morning, Potter told Vanity Fair that she hoped the film would make audiences “laugh themselves sick about stuff that, at the moment, is making people very tense, fearful, repressed, angry, all that stuff. We need cathartic laughter more than we’ve ever needed it.”
Potter noted during the post-screening Q&A—organized to celebrate both her new film and the 25th anniversary of Orlando, her 1992 adaptation starring Tilda Swinton—that when she wrote the script for The Party, the term “Brexit” was not yet in the vernacular. Then it exploded in the midst of her team’s two weeks of shooting, leaving several members of her diverse, largely international cast and crew in tears on set.
The resulting film—which doesn’t explicitly mention individual politicians or even political parties—captures a cross-border mood of omnipresent dissatisfaction that audiences across Spain, Scandinavia, Greece, and now the U.S. are responding to on a personal level. Writing in a political atmosphere, Potter told Hernandez, puts issues like these “in the air we breathe, in the conversations we’re having. It’s like having one’s ear to the ground and hearing a distant rumbling.”
No disastrous real-life dinner parties inspired the events that unfold in black and white on screen in The Party. Instead, Potter started with a dark version of her dream dinner party guest list—then struck a match. “Mostly I thought, what if I put these people together with this concept? What’s gonna happen? It’s really the process of revelation and transformation, as each person has to begin to face that the image they had of who they were doesn’t quite hold good in a crisis situation,” she said.
Potter, who also runs Adventure Pictures, the production company that she co-founded in 1990 with producer Christopher Sheppard, has consistently taken risks with her work. (Who could forget 2004’s Yes, told almost entirely in iambic pentameter?) She’s also managed to maintain independence and aesthetic control, despite ongoing budget struggles and the mixed reactions to her films when she was starting out more than a quarter of a century ago.
”My budgets are always smaller, for the same kind of script, than the equivalent male director, I suspect,” Potter told V.F. “But rather than thinking, ‘poor me,’ how about thinking, ‘hey, this could be a real spur toward invention. This can push me to explore new and different ways of doing things. How exciting is that?’”
While she acknowledged that this approach has often meant a lack of financial security, she also cited her independence as “probably the single most valuable thing” in her artistic arsenal: “If I don’t have that, I can’t take the necessary risks with the right kind of freedom to arrive at the very things that people like.”
Before the Orlando screening started, Potter once more reflected on her impetus to make a film that prioritized honesty, directness, and humor. In her view, ignorant bliss is not the answer to moving forward productively in these strange times, whether one is making art or marching in the streets. On the contrary, Potter told the crowd, when politics are not going the way we want, “we have to look these things in the face. Otherwise, it’s sugar and spice and delusion—and things will not improve.”