English director and screenwriter Sally Potter (“Orlando,” “Ginger & Rosa”) continues her unpretentious experiments in film, choosing, along with cinematographer and frequent collaborator Alexey Rodionov, to shoot her latest in black and white. But even before the canapés can be served in this drawing-room comedy, the drama comes to a spumy boil and stays there, getting acrider by the minute.
The movie begins at the ending: a slow flash forward reveals an agitated Kristin Scott Thomas opening the door and aiming a gun at the person on her doorstep. Who is the target of this inhospitable greeting? For now, it's us, the viewers. But before we can wonder what we did to deserve such a hostile welcome, the movie switches to a calmer but not much happier time.
Janet, played by Scott Thomas, is preparing a small dinner party to celebrate her appointment as the country's health minister. Her husband, Bill (Timothy Spall), already stewed, leaves his chair in the living room, where he sits almost comatose, only to clumsily and obsessively change the record on his turntable. Their guests, cherry-picked bourgeois caricatures, include Janet's cynical best friend April (Patricia Clarkson) and a cliché-spouting pseudo-philosopher and her soon-to-be-ex-boyfriend, Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), along with lesbian couple Martha (Cherry Jones) and Jinny (Emily Mortimer), newly pregnant with triplets. Last to arrive is the sweaty, coked-up banker Tom (Cillian Murphy) who keeps changing his mind about shooting Bill.
These seven, embroiled in a hot mess of two ill-timed confessions (inopportune for both the dinner party and the structure of the film), make up the entire cast. Two offscreen characters, an illicit lover represented by a burner phone hidden in Janet's bosom and Tom's wife, who is also Bill's cohort, complicate these relationships somewhat, though the former, overshadowed by the onscreen theatrics, is easily forgotten.
In an already small space fraught with tension, Potter divides her small cast into twos and threes and shuttles them into even more claustrophobic spots — the bathroom, the kitchen, the backdoor alleyway near the garbage cans. There isn't a single person onscreen who's not engaged in an argument or worked up into a homicidal rage. So much of this is unnecessary, though, such as the tension between Martha and Jinny over Martha's lack of maternal excitement, which just feels like overkill.
Comparisons to the 1972 Luis Buñuel film “The Discreet Charm of The Bourgeoisie” are inevitable. Potter's party guests, too, never get to the dinner part of the dinner party. But unlike Buñuel's film, where a series of dreamy, spectral interruptions keep the guests from sating their appetites, those at Potter's party only get in their own way. They know the dinner's in the bin and the party has devolved into a version of hell. Yet, nobody leaves.