Why did Sally Potter make The Party? Here’s a film that reached cinemas as a 71 minute black & white drama shot in just two weeks on, I assume, a low budget – though there are quite a few well-known pieces of music and a starry cast to pay for. Apart from the fact that images are composed in ‘Scope, the most ‘cinematic’ ratio, there is little to distinguish The Party from a TV play or a West End play. I’ve not been tempted so far to watch one of the ‘live’ filmed plays beamed into cinemas, but I wonder whether they are very different? To be fair, The Party is shot by Aleksei Rodionov a Russian cinematographer with a very varied list of credits from the sublime (including Potter’s Orlando (1992)) to the much less so. In this case he glides the camera between four parts of a London townhouse and its carefully shielded backyard and provides some startling close-ups, neither of which would work on stage.
I suppose the answer to my question is provided by Sophie Mayer in her Sight and Sound piece. She describes the work as a “brisk, coruscatingly witty farce”. Mayer goes on to see the film as: “. . . a comedy that bites because it is utterly and urgently of our moment”. The subhead to suggests that “Sally Potter probes liberty and the state of Europe’s left”. I’m dubious about these claims.
Let’s start with an outline of the plot. ‘The party’ concerns Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas) who has today been appointed to Shadow Minister of Health and she’s giving a drinks party. The only reason to mention the ‘European left’ is that one of her guests is German – Gottfried, an elderly man (played by a sprightly Bruno Ganz) who has become ‘New Age’ in his old age. A practical (and positive) point to make about Potter’s script is that she has provided four female parts and only three for males. Janet’s husband, retired academic Bill (Tim Spall) is seemingly ‘far away’, listening to his music collection with a large glass of red and a puzzled and rather forlorn expression. The other man is Tom (Cillian Murphy) – a young ‘wanker-banker’ as someone refers to him. The women include a lesbian married couple, Martha (Cherry Jones), former colleague of Bill, and pregnant Jinny (Emily Mortimer) and April (Patricia Clarkson) the partner of Gottfried (and long-time friend of Janet). There is also someone still to arrive – Tom’s wife Marianne (who is also Janet’s assistant/advisor). We find out what ails Bill and what drives the manic Tom – and these revelations lead to the whole set of relationships being challenged and recriminations being carried out. Formally, the play is a farce.
The major problem for Mayer’s argument (and everyone else who sees this as some kind of political satire) is that it is already out of date. Sally Potter is supposed to have written the script in 2015, presumably before or during the General Election campaign. The Labour Party that has emerged since Jeremy Corbyn became leader would be unlikely to include a character like Janet as Shadow Health Minister. Indeed a quick scan through the Shadow Cabinet today shows a significant shift to Northern, often working-class, women rather than the southern middle-class typified by Janet. Sally Potter couldn’t know how these changes would work out and the Labour Party is never named – but the dialogue about health issues makes it difficult to see Janet as anything other than a Labour MP. It felt to me that this was actually quite an old-fashioned play, but that may be as much to do with the form as with the characters. I can see the links to Edward Albee (Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf), Beckett (waiting for the arrival of Marianne) and Mike Leigh (Abigail’s Party?).
Unsurprisingly, the film/play is well acted. A friend queried whether I had laughed (on the basis that it was a middle-class play and perhaps you had to know this world to laugh?). Well, I did laugh on several occasions but I also got bored and in the end it didn’t add up to much for me. Bill’s music, an eclectic mix of jazz, blues, reggae, Cuban and tango was very welcome as a distraction – and I don’t think I really considered it as a commentary on the absence of issues of colonial history and exploitation in the script as suggested by Sophie Mayer.
Although I’ve always been aware of this film, for some reason I don’t remember watching it in the 1980s. Watching it now I was surprised at how accessible it was. I remember the critical backlash against the film which attracted the attention of the mainstream press because it featured Julie Christie – during her 1980s stint as champion of independent and political film. There are several notable features of its production which are key to its high status in the history of feminist filmmaking in the UK. As well as Sally Potter as writer-director it had a largely female crew and creative team. It was also one of the first films to be produced by the BFI Production Board and the new Channel 4 working together and this means it was in the vanguard of the British experimental and new art film movement of the 1980s. In her succinct and very helpful entry on the Screenonline website, Annette Kuhn comments on the film’s beautiful black and white cinematography by Babette Mangolte, suggesting that it has the qualities of the best European art cinema such as Ingmar Bergman’s films. Mangolte had already worked with Chantal Akerman and was herself already a specialist in photographing dance and performance art as well as working on experimental film and theatre productions.
The Gold Diggers was shot on 35mm with a budget of around £250,000, most of which went on the shoot itself as all the participants, including its star, were on the same basic wage of £30 a day. The look of the film is thus very different from the 16mm low-budget Thriller. Its narrative is, like Thriller, a feminist investigation of patriarchy but with a much wider remit. The story concerns two women, one a computer operator (Collette Lafont from Thriller) and the other an actor/performer (Julie Christie). The computer operator wants to discover how men control the economy through possession of gold and she teams up with the actor who, born to a ‘gold digger’ (scenes shot in Iceland to represent the Klondike) later finds herself as the ‘queen’ in a parade of bankers. She is in effect investigating her own image as a ‘woman in film’. The film’s title is also a clue to this second narrative investigation into the history of cinema itself from Chaplin’s Gold Rush, through Busby Berkeley musicals (Gold Diggers of 1933) to later melodramas and costume pictures. The investigation is both a celebration and a critique of mainstream cinema and, via the chase and the dream sequence, the ways in which those narratives use female stars. Rather than linear, the narrative is circular so the investigation ‘reveals’ many things but never finds closure – the ‘riddle’ of cinema as an art form underpins everything. If this sounds ‘difficult’, rest assured it isn’t. There are songs and dances (music by Lindsay Cooper, choreography by Sally Potter, who also sings) and sly digs at the pompous men who are definitely not in control of the action. All the performers acquit themselves well and this is not ‘minor’ Julie Christie work.
Intrigued as to how the film was received at the time, I sought out Monthly Film Bulletin and Sight and Sound. In 1984 (when the film was released) the two BFI journals were still separate publications and they had distinctly different writing cultures. MFB in May 1984 included an interview with Sally Potter by Sheila Johnson alongside a detailed and perceptive review of the film by Pam Cook. In Sight & Sound by contrast, the film receives a mainly positive but limited ‘thumbnail review’ in the Summer 1984 issue, but earlier in the Spring issue, Jonathan Rosenbaum had reported from the Rotterdam film festival to the effect that: “Shown only in the Market, it has not yet found many defenders”. To be fair to Rosenbaum, he did write that he found the visuals “deserved applause” and the avant-garde tropes were “consistently fresh and unpredictable”. According to this 2010 review of the BFI’s DVD package of the film and Sally Potter’s shorts, Jonathan Rosenbaum has produced a new essay on the film which refers to him being “taken aback” by the reaction of Janet Maslin (then New York Times film critic) who described watching the film on its 1988 American release as “pure torture”. I have to agree with Rosenbaum. Pure pleasure was my reaction watching it now. I hope more people find the DVD. There are more films from this era to be re-discovered. I note that The Gold Diggers was released alongside another BFI-distributed film, Bette Gordon’s Variety with a script by Kathy Acker. Variety is reviewed in that same MFB issue with an interview with the director conducted by Jane Root. When was the last time two feminist filmmakers were reviewed together in this way?
Sally Potter’s seminal medium-length film Thriller played as the centrepiece of a programme of ‘Sally Potter Shorts’ in the director retrospective at BIFF honouring her BIFF Fellowship. It brought back for me an entire period of British independent filmmaking. No wonder its reputation has lasted and grown – here we get commentaries on class, gender and race, film theory and the status of classical works of high culture.
Potter ‘deconstructs’ Puccini’s La Bohème as a feminist murder mystery. She explores the construction of the two female characters in the opera, Mimi the poor seamstress and Musetta the café dancer. Potter turns Mimi into the investigator of her own murder and in the process offers us an analysis of how the honest woman must die and the bad girl survive. She adds another layer by casting a black woman to play Mimi. The investigation involves a replaying of key scenes from the opera on an expressionist set complete with mirror and window. The film was shot on 16mm b&w stock and this helps the expressionist noir effect. There are several scenes comprising a succession of still images and the live action is accompanied by extracts from Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score alongside music from Potter’s frequent collaborator Lindsay Cooper. The overall effect is to open up an analysis of film conventions for the thriller genre as well as the melodrama.
The film was screened non-theatrically at festivals and conferences/workshops during the early 1980s and for many years remained a film more likely to be read about in academic papers than actually seen. It’s now available on YouTube and the hope is that a whole new generation of filmmakers (including feminist filmmakers) will take it as an inspiration. Well done to BIFF for providing further stimulus.
90-plus minutes of talking heads anyone? I think the thought of that is why Sally Potter’s Rage is rated a mere 4.7 by imdb users. In reality, of course, it’s – at the least – an engaging film that relies on its excellent script and performances to allay any ‘poverty’ in the image. Riz Ahmed, Steve Buscemi, Judi Dench, Eddie Izzard, Jude Law and David Oyelowo are the stand outs in what can actually be called a ‘star studded’ cast. The monologues are ostensibly, we never see him, shot by a student for his school project; though he’s actually posting them on a blog. His subject is a fashion show, which is going ‘pear-shaped’, and Potter’s intention is to skewer the pretensions of the industry.
Not a difficult target, I would suggest, but Potter also goes beyond that focus by implicating western consumerism, and wars, into her film. We are invited to read between the lines of what the self-justifying characters are saying. Inevitably, most of them are as two-dimensional as the green screen; which is almost any colour but green, background. The actors perform the shallowness of the characters to perfection; Bob Balaban talking about his new ‘opportunities’, having being sacked, is particularly good.
But why this form? Potter’s targets are valid but are monologues to camera the best way to offer a subversive look at our capitalist world? I suspect it’s a case of form winning over content. Potter’s purpose was to make a film for mobile phones and chose the best – only? – visible format that would be effective on such small screens. This is not to say it doesn’t look great on the big screen, it makes the performances literally ‘towering’. Rage is worth seeing as Potter, and her performers, have risen to the challenge created by the form’s limitations, but it is more an exercise than a entirely convincing piece of cinema.
Sally Potter’s new film, Ginger & Rosa is drawing a very different response from critics who have found her artistic style previously inaccessible. It has drawn comparisons with Orlando, her towering adaptation (for an incredibly tight budget, even in 1992, of $4 million) or The Tango Lesson (1997), made with Potter at the central figure as a woman learning about her emotions as well as her dancing skill on an odyssey (‘away’ from the demands of writing and creating) to Paris and Buenos Aires. The sense of escape – the emotional joy of it in that film – could make us forget we are watching something written and created by Potter. Both films demonstrate Potter’s flair with crafting images of lyrical, romantic intensity – so arresting it could be easy to forget the emotional underpinning that music often provides in these and her other films. Even in ones that seem removed from her more mainstream narratives, there is a rhythm in repetition of action or, for example, in the deep musical voice of Celeste Laffont, who muses philosophically on female/feminist and capitalist states in both Thriller (1979) and The Gold Diggers (1983). A contemporary, and friend, of Derek Jarman and working through the politically-activist 1970s through the resistant 1980s, Potter has often been regarded as part of the British art cinema scene rather than a mainstream filmmaker.
Much has been made, therefore, of the mainstream sensibility of this film and foregrounding it as a departure for Potter. This oddly forgets The Man Who Cried which starred Christina Ricci in another coming-of-age drama, similarly focused on an isolated character – a refugee of a Russian pogrom on a quest to find her father (in America). Whilst this latter film followed a conventional picaresque narrative for its main character, including her romance with an uneducated but poetic Romany (played by Johnny Depp), Ginger & Rosa follows its main character through a particular crisis. It could be described as a family melodrama focused on Ginger’s emotional response to a changing relationship with her parents, resulting from their separation. However, set at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, Potter (as writer) brings together the tension of the personal and the political – not only in Ginger’s own political awakening and turning away from home to realise the importance of world events but in the way in which politics is embedded and entwined in her emotional relationship with her father. I am going to put the context to one side – wrongly I know, because the film animates that period of history and does so most effectively through the persistent sound of the news reports that permeate every private space. When I saw it, another cinemagoer spontaneously talked to me about how it had brought back that whole era really vividly for him. So, I’m turning my face away from the politics, to look at its personal, melodramatic form. Partly because I think Potter explores effectively how the political – truly believed in – can also be as much about personal loyalties and deep-rooted family feeling and this becomes an absorbing tension at the heart of this narrative – not least, importantly, because the playing of it by Elle Fanning and Alessandro Nivola is so incredibly moving. Not often can films let complicatedly good and bad figures remain just that – but Nivola and Potter succeed here. Fanning is drawing Oscar buzz for her performance, and the rawness of her emotions on screen (pretty much carrying a film at 13 years old) are incredible. Alice Englert, as the apparently more experienced worldly-wise childhood friend, is as finely judged in what has to be a less showy performance (to prevent the film becoming imbalanced in any way). Shot by Robbie Ryan, Andrea Arnold’s regular collaborator/cinematographer, the colour palette often adds the kind of melodramatic intensity and to express the interiority – I liked to think sometimes (as above) the walls were allowed to turn russet to reflect Ginger’s emotions as well as reflecting an idea of the world she was trying to save. Music, similarly, was actively used in the scenes (rather than remaining a directorial mood-inducing soundtrack) as arising from the characters’ need for expression or comfort –where their human conversations avoided the confrontations that would force them to let go of the beliefs they needed to hang onto (political or personal).
Potter is used to directing stars (Cate Blanchett and John Turturro joined Ricci and Depp in The Man Who Cried and her innovative Rage – released via mobile phone webisodes in 2009 – included actors such as Judi Dench, Steve Buscemi and Jude Law). She has a number in supporting roles here – Mad Men’s Christine Hendricks, Annette Bening, Timothy Spall and Oliver Platt. Certain scenes do struggle with the weight of ‘adult’ cross-currents and declarations, but the cast do support (rather than overwhelm) what is a really affecting – and to me as an adult female – true portrait of the kinds of intense friendships born in childhood that can hit the rapids towards adulthood. Its evocation of those unbalanced and intense female friendships was incredibly moving – and was a proper inheritor to earlier women’s pictures in which portraits of women’s relationships were not sketchily or patronisingly conceived. Potter’s films may sometimes issue strong intellectual challenges but in her films there is always a strong romantic consciousness and emotionality (such as in the iambic pentameter-driven Yes (2004)) that does not patronise or render complicated emotions tritely. Satisfying cinema on many levels – no labels really required.