(French and Portuguese dialogue)
Michel Michel Piccoli
Irene Irene Papas
Leonor Leonor Silveira
Rogerio Rogerio Samora
Following on the heels of last season’s “The Convent,” Manoel de Oliveira’s “Party” is another smallish chamber piece about tormented male-female relationships, impeccably played by a cast of four. Compared with the sweeping literary and historical films (“Valley of Abraham,” “Francisca”) that made him a cult arthouse director, pic is very much Oliveira lite. But fans will find much to enjoy in the witty dialogue and tongue-in-cheek direction.
Though this is clearly a prestige film of limited appeal, Euro stars Michel Piccoli and Irene Papas should assure roughly the same audience interest as “The Convent.” Flanking them is Oliveira’s endearing regular Leonor Silveira as a headstrong young wife who develops a burning obsession with an aging Don Juan, Michel (Piccoli), at a garden party she and her husband, Rogerio (Rogerio Samora), throw at their villa in the Azores. While Michel’s mistress, the famous Greek film star Irene (Irene Papas), exchanges witty barbs with Rogerio, something overwhelming happens between Leonor and Michel offscreen on the beach.
The couples next meet at a dinner party in the same villa five years later. Again they switch partners to talk about their feelings, deliver witty one-liners and express social paradoxes. Only the quality of Agustina Bessa-Luis’s writing (her novels were the basis of “Valley of Abraham” and “The Convent”) makes the rapid-fire, artificial French dialogue bearable and often amusing.
At its best, “Party” is a droll stroll through the court of Louis XVI, where witty repartee is the heart of social relations. Less indulgent viewers may well grow tired of listening to broad generalizations about men and women, sex and love, from a bunch of international snobs who jet in and out of the Azores for dinner. But Oliveira has that base covered, too: Their pretentiousness is the target of the film’s irony.
Silveira injects such restless dynamism into Leonor that one has to sympathize with her boredom as the rich, pampered wife of a handsome nobleman. Piccoli is more tired than seductive as the man who captures her fancy, suggesting that even a lifetime of womanizing can get stale. Papas, every inch the star, effortlessly exerts her enormous magnetism to conquer entire scenes. Samora has a rather thankless role as the husband so dull his wife looks elsewhere, but there’s an amusing change of pace for his character in the film’s farcical happy ending.
Shooting in a nearly square 1.33 format, cameraman Renato Berta does nothing to beautify the muddy gray skies boding a storm at the garden party, but transforms the interiors in film’s second half with warm, intimate lighting. It is here that Oliveira’s utterly simple staging, often no more than two characters talking in a room, or an actor framed in a window or doorway, makes the interminable dialogue spring to life with its own peculiar logic and sophisticated deadpan humor. If Oliveira films are an acquired taste, “Party” makes a good appetizer.