The Dinner Party

Isolation is the killer. Loneliness is the culprit. Alienation is the responsible party. Maybe if we could all just… be friends… then everything would be okay.

The human species is becoming increasingly urbanised. Across the developing world, wave after wave of humans are leaving agrarian existences behind them and trying their luck in our planet’s ever-expanding cities, following their first and second world brethren into lives layered with loneliness and alienation.

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Indeed, despite humanity packing itself more and more densely into less and less space, the spectre of loneliness has never loomed so large. It pervades our politics and our culture. If only we could be friends…

Scott Murden’s Australian psychological thriller The Dinner Party turns the received opinion that community is a solution to all ills on its head by suggesting that social ties such as friendship and love can be just as dangerous as living a life of complete isolation. The film begins with that most traditional and over-used of post-hoc framing devices, the police interview. We realise that something dreadful has happened; we see that people are upset but we do not know why.

Entering into the film properly we discover a deliciously unhealthy social network. Angela (Lara Cox) and Joel (Ben Seton) are hosting a farewell dinner but are having trouble finding guests. One reason for their failure to attract guests is that they are not going on a trip or moving away, they are planning to commit suicide. Lured into this grotesque piece of social theatre are Angela’s co-dependent friend Maddy (Jessica Turner), Joel’s ex-girlfriend Sky (Mariane Power), and two of Angela’s fellow students – party-animal Freddy (Kai Harris) and introspective moralist Matts (Sam Lyndon).

The plan is simple. The group are going to have a nice dinner and then Joel and Angela are going to overdose on smack, and be together forever. However, Angela turns out to be a bit of a monster. Not only does Joel not know that he is going to be committing suicide but he is having serious doubts about his relationship with Angela after she dosed him with Rohypnol in order to live out some unspecified fantasy. So Angela is not only a rapist but also a potential murderer. The twist that animates The Dinner Party and makes it compelling viewing is the fact that while everybody realises quite how dreadful Angela is, everyone is too polite to do anything about it.

Indeed, Joel realises that he has been raped but, instead of dumping Angela or confronting her about her behaviour, he decides to make peace and passive-aggressively invite his ex-girlfriend to dinner. At one point, Angela screams at Joel because he is refusing to ‘get dressed’ a second time and, after some grumping, he comes to accept that he is the one at fault.

The same refusal to challenge transgressive behaviour characterises Angela’s relationship with the meek but highly-strung Maddy, who explains that Angela is only ever stable when she has everything she wants, and Maddy takes it to be part of her duties as Angela’s friend to ensure that she remains stable. Even passing acquaintances like Freddy and Matts refuse to act when they work out that Joel is in no way suicidal; Freddy is too self-absorbed to give a shit about anything except getting laid and getting high, while Matts is utterly paralysed by his ability to see both sides of the moral argument.

The Dinner Party is a film in the grand tradition of Luis Buñuel’s Exterminating Angel (1962), and The Discreet Charm Of The Bourgeoisie (1972). It is a film that satirises the conventions of polite society by revealing how toxic and counter-productive they can become if they are allowed to take precedence over basic moral sensibility. Joel’s forgiveness, Maddy’s supportiveness, and Matts’ abstracted equanimity are all laudable character traits when considered in isolation:

Don’t be judgemental
Don’t bear a grudge
Be there for your friends

These are the basic principles of our civic code. They are the values that bind societies together and allow humans to function as groups… And yet, in the case of Angela, they are utterly immoral. Writer-director Murden suggests that these values are far from unimpeachable because, when applied to a transgressive person like Angela, they not only fail to do good, they actively influence people to do evil. The tension that drives the plot of The Dinner Party is not whether or not Angela will kill Joel but rather whether Joel and Angela’s ‘friends’ will come to their senses soon enough to prevent Angela from getting away with it.

Technically, The Dinner Party is an accomplished piece of filmmaking. Oonagh Sherard’s score and Brett Murphy’s cinematography combine beautifully to create a claustrophobic atmosphere of ill-concealed hysteria that will be familiar to anyone who has arrived at someone’s house for dinner only to become acutely aware that a huge row is taking place ‘off-stage’. The characters’ frequent trips from the dinner table brought back memories of many an awkward Christmas dinner.

The performances are also, by and large, excellent. Though the cast seem a bit old to be students (Harris in particular looks like he should be on his second doctorate), Turner is superb as Maddy, and Cox creates in Angela an entirely believable portrait of a woman holding herself together through will-power alone.

My only complaint about the film is its lack of energy. The decision to frame the film using police interviews effectively kills any will-she/ won’t-she tension stone dead and, while the acting and script nicely establish the tension flowing from the supporting characters’ moral anguish, the film never finds a release for its tension – meaning that the entire film takes place within the same emotional register. This results in the paradox of a film with great acting, great characterisation and a real eye for human weakness but with little sense of actual drama.

The DVD comes with no extras aside from a trailer, which is a bit shit, frankly.