In "The Party," an acid-laced amuse-bouche of a movie from British writer-director Sally Potter, dinner never makes it to the table but the guests still get served, early and often. We are in the home of a London politician named Janet (Kristin Scott Thomas), who has just been appointed shadow minister for health of an undisclosed opposition party. But the celebratory mood swiftly turns toxic at a gathering where nearly every guest might as well be wearing a self-affixed "kick me" sign.
The one doing most of the kicking is Janet's friend April — a sublimely withering Patricia Clarkson — whose delight at her friend's success is matched by her cynical disdain for politics.
"I'm proud of you, even though I think democracy is finished," she declares, and the movie, although scrupulous in its satirical detachment, cannot help but agree with her point.
Over a fast and funny 71 minutes (67 sans closing credits), "The Party" shows just how quickly a small microcosm of enlightened liberal society can descend into coke-snorting, face-smacking, gun-toting chaos. It also demonstrates what can happen when a filmmaker takes on a well-worn cinematic subgenre — the dinner party gone horribly wrong — and strips it down to its blistering bare-bones essence.
Thematic ambition and formal versatility have long been the hallmarks of Potter's wide-ranging filmmaking career, the best-known products of which include her striking 1992 Virginia Woolf adaptation "Orlando" and "Yes" (2004), a cross-cultural romance composed entirely in rhyming verse. But with "The Party," availing herself of a zinger-heavy script and an unimprovable cast, the director has made not only her most accessible picture to date, but also a shrewd demonstration of the less-is-more principle.
To that end, the movie is filmed in crisp black-and-white (by Russian cinematographer Aleksei Rodionov), a stylistic choice that makes the proceedings feel both starker and swifter; it's as though the mere presence of color might have slowed the story's momentum. Within minutes of arriving at Janet's Victorian house, we have been informed of her political triumph, picked up on at least one potentially explosive secret and met each of her guests, every one of them ripe for roasting.
Clarkson's April kicks things off by announcing her imminent separation from her boyfriend, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), a life coach who spends most of the movie peddling German-accented New Age bromides. He's still more fun to spend time with than the easily flustered Jinny (Emily Mortimer), who quickly blurts out that she's expecting triplets, and her more emotionally remote partner, Martha (Cherry Jones), a self-serious academic specializing in "domestic labor, gender differentiation and American utopianism." Or, as April sums her up, "a first-class lesbian and a second-rate thinker." (The inevitable supercut of Clarkson's best lines is going to be priceless.)
Appearing somewhat out of place in this idealistic cocoon is Tom (Cillian Murphy), a finance hotshot who retreats to the bathroom for regular cocaine breaks, lost in the depths of some private agitation. There's also some mystery concerning Janet's professor husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), whom we first meet nursing a drink, fiddling with the record player and drifting into what looks like a catatonic stupor. Every celebration like this needs at least one teller of unsavory truths, and you can see from the steely determination in Bill's scowl that he has a few choice bombshells in store.
The fun of "The Party" — at least until its unpersuasive O. Henry-style kicker — comes from the understanding that these guests will respond to each outrage differently, yet somehow with equal imbecility. They may believe in truth, decency and the sanctity of the National Health Service, but no opportunity is too small, it seems, for these people to expose their fundamental moral complacency, their intellectual vapidity and their surprising capacity for emotional and physical violence.
In Jean Renoir's "The Rules of the Game" (1939), the greatest of all house-party-gone-to-hell movies, the moral is that "everybody has their reasons." It's a profound human insight that Potter's comparatively slight effort winds up reducing to a programmatic parlor trick, albeit one executed with a certain tart Buñuelian verve and no shortage of superb acting. (First among equals in the cast is Scott Thomas; as a woman whose finest hour quickly devolves into her ugliest, she's brittle, lacerating perfection.)
"The Party" is rigged, in other words, to take down its characters as ruthlessly as it flatters its audience, something it manages with sherry-dry aplomb. It may be too quick and too slight in the end to support whatever metaphorical reading — is it a snapshot of Brexit-era instability or a barbed, hopeful ode to female ascendancy? — a viewer may wish to project upon it. But its caustic pleasures linger in the memory with an insistence that a larger, more unwieldy film might not have managed.
"Everything is changing, whether we like it or not," Gottfried says. "We cannot fight impermanence." Wiser words are never spoken in a movie that, with a self-awareness that eludes its guests, knows not to overstay its welcome.
Rated: R, for language and drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 11 minutes
Playing: The Landmark, West Los Angeles