Virtue signalling is a term that is often used to disparage important opinions, yet for all its misuse, it is nevertheless a real phenomenon. While, politically, progressivism is suffering major setbacks around the world, it arguably carries more cultural capital than ever, so having the right opinions becomes currency in certain circles.
Vocally expressing your tolerance is a way to gain credit in the echo chamber, even if your actions secretly betray what you say. However right they may be on any number of issues, liberals regularly operate with an air of self-righteousness.
Sally Potter’s The Party cuts right through such attitudes with some force, even if the knife is blunt in places. The party of the title is both the political party of which Kristin Scott Thomas’ Janet is a member and the dinner party she is throwing to celebrate her new appointment as shadow health minister. The guests she invites round are, largely, platonic ideals of what the Daily Mail would infuriatingly refer to as the “liberal elite”. There’s a pro-NHS politician, a celebrated atheist academic, a lesbian couple – including a second atheist professor – and an aging hippy (played by Bruno Ganz).
Then, everything falls apart.
The comedy of the situation derives from a series of revelations that undermine the on-message beliefs of the guests. Gradually, each member of the group is shown up to be a phoney or a hypocrite or a liar. More aggravating, still, the coked-up banker that would invoke the ire of many a Guardian
reader ends up being one of the most sympathetic characters.
Moving calmly through it all is Patricia Clarkson’s April, who declares near the beginning that democracy is dead. Always ready with a withering put down or an acerbic aside, Clarkson is a joy throughout, as she reflects the cynicism of vast swaths of the audience.
Potter’s aim isn’t cruel or coming from a place of right-wing hatred of such characters. Her acidically funny film is merely a tonic to the self-importance of the hopelessly defeated opposition. This one small party reflects wider politics as a whole, where the left is left to wonder how it has all gone so horribly wrong. April (and, one suspects, Potter herself) concludes that for now all we can do is laugh bitterly. Our politics will not save us.