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The Berlinale Blog: Best kept secrets

Secrets and lies, confessions and betrayals: all in a day’s work at the Berlinale, which sees Sally Potter’s The Party succeed where fellow Competition film The Dinner failed, as well as an Austrian Forum film deliver the creepy goods.

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The Party

Take an emotionally neglectful politician, a fed up husband, an acerbic American, a meditating German, an Irish banker packing a firearm and a lesbian couple expecting triplets. Invite your guests to a townhouse to celebrate a work promotion. Crank up the temperature, wind up and let go. You’ve got the eighth feature of chameleonic British director Sally Potter, a film which will go down as the comedic highlight of this year’s Competition selection.

The Party is also the streamlined and effective yin to The Dinner’s bloated and messy yang. Both Competition films share some DNA, but it is undeniably Potter’s lean, mean and wickedly mordant black comedy that triumphs. The story centers on these seven characters and on their secrets gradually rising to the surface, as they wait for an enigmatic absentee guest. The explosive revelations will be kept unspoilt, but safe to say that this monochromatic chamber piece delivers the goods when it comes to laughs and gentle satire, what the director dubbed a “light and loving look at a broken England”. The political send-up deals with idealism vs. realism in top tier politics, as well as the NHS, and while the surface satire and sharp script offer pleasant misdirection, it’s the performances that make The Party a crowd-pleasing triumph. The eye-wateringly stellar ensemble cast clearly have a blast, and deliver brilliant comedy moments, especially a music therapy scene where a soundtrack is being quickly curated by the aphorism-spouting Bruno Ganz and the distressed Cillian Murphy in order to revive an unconscious Timothy Spall. However, the piece’s standout is Patricia Clarkson, who is gift-wrapped the best lines and delivers a delightfully mischievous turn as the straight-talking April. Her repeated “Shut up, Gottfried” line threatens to become the next “Shut the fuck up, Donny!”

Granted, the one-location theatricality of The Party, which echoes the works of authors Edward Albee, Yasmina Reza and to a certain extent John Boynton Priestly, isn’t anything new. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine this ensemble performing the one-act play on the West End. However, The Party happily stakes its claim in the pantheon of parties-gone-wrong films, which include the likes of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Last Supper and even Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen (just with significantly more laughs).

From a knees-up gone awry to a Hitchockian tale also about (in)fidelity and secrets gradually revealing themselves…

From the opening sequence of Greg Zglinski’s Tiere (Animals), you know you’re in for something special. A woman in a red nightgown throws herself from a window of a Viennese flat, but the camera slowly pans down to a vacant pavement. We then meet the downstairs tenants, Nick and Anna, who are about to leave their flat for a trip to Switzerland.

The less said about the unfolding narrative the better, as the echoing motifs and overlapping details in this moodily shot Austrian gem create a playful puzzlebox whose mystery also deserves to remain unspoilt. The script, courtesy of Zglinski and Jörg Kalt, intertwines the supernatural with a relationship drama that proves to be fiendishly clever. It even manages to surprise the viewer: every time you think you’ve sussed it out or that an element seems be too heavily signposted, the script addresses it directly, keeping you on your tippy-toes and in the genre-literate hands of puppet master Zglinski.

The script is also fertile ground for cinematographer Piotr Jaxa, who crafts a threatening beauty often reminiscent of some of Polanski’s best work. There are also shades of David Lynch, specifically in the purposeful doppelgänger qualities certain characters share, as well as a superbly nightmarish beat that could have been lifted from Lost Highway.

By the time the ending comes, you’re left with a deep appreciation for Karina Ressler’s precise editing, which may lead many a viewer to draw comparisons with what Tom Ford accomplished with Nocturnal Animals’ splintered narratives. And even if you don’t adhere to the final reveal, there’s a chatty feline that will bring back memories of The Witch’s Black Philip and haunt you for days to come.

The Party (Competition) / Feb 14, 12:00, Friedrichstadt-Palast & 12:30, Haus der Berliner Festspiele & 20:00, Friedrichstadt-Palast; Feb 19, 14:45, Berlinale Palast.

Tiere (Animals) (Forum) / Feb 15, 13:45, CineStar 8; Feb 16, 18:30, City Kino Wedding & 20:00, Cubix 9; Feb 18, 16:30, CineStar 8.