The memorable party scene in Blake Edwards’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s is one of the finest in cinema, precisely because the soiree in Holly Golightly’s cramped Manhattan apartment is just what a party scene should be: a diverting respite reflecting people’s desires to unwind from daily life. Adding just a dollop of absurdism to the mix, Edwards toys with the spatial properties of Holly’s one-bedroom apartment, as the tight living space seems to expand and contort as the guests become drunker and, most amusingly, more rowdy. Edwards expands on this scene in his dizzying 1968 film The Party, with is more experimental in its aesthetic and comic brio.
Much like Tati’s Hulot escapade Playtime, The Party is beholden to only a whiff of story; nothing is truly resolved or developed beyond the setup, in which bungling Indian actor Hrundi V. Bakshi (Peter Sellers) is inadvertently invited to a Hollywood bigwig’s titular get-together after ruining the production of an expensive epic. The film is constructed as a series of conceptual sketches where the focus is never particularly centered on any one character or incident; the viewer’s eye is simply left to wander among Edwards’s packed widescreen compositions, and in all likelihood will miss gags that oftentimes occur simultaneously in the same shot. This is due to the malleable environment Edwards creates, where the characters and setting are linked to such an extent that actions and moods directly affect the house’s physical and spatial features. While the roster of eccentrics at the party move through the film at their own free will, the house, too, seems to have a mind of its own, such as when Bakshi must deal with an unstoppable stream of toilet paper while trying to clean a painting.
Naturally, the eye tends to drift in the direction of Sellers, who creates a humane performance in the role of Bakshi that also allows the actor to do his patented physical comedy. One of the few characters in the film who truly mean well, Bakshi only wants to please, but this somewhat naïve eagerness reveals a clumsiness that routinely occurs at the most inopportune moments. The Party’s prologue, in which Bakshi is presented as little more than a destructive imbecile ridiculed by impatient studio honchos, would be egregious if the scene wasn’t immediately followed by Bakshi playing his sitar with sheer adeptness and soul, with the rendition ambiguously hovering between a lament and a celebration. This prompts the question of who exactly is out of step: the good-natured but clumsy Bakshi, or the pretentious but functional Hollywood world that surrounds him?
The Mr. Yunioshi controversy that plagues Breakfast at Tiffany’s would seem to manifest itself here in Sellers’s brownface makeup, but the film’s sense of the humane precludes insult; any joke made by an individual Hollywood goon at Bakshi’s expense is directed toward the man’s personal antics, never toward his culture, and speaks more to the ignorance of each partygoer. In this regard, Edwards’s target is the collective of big shots who feel they must maintain an image of power, which becomes a delusional compensation for their own idiocy; this is none more apparent, or hilarious, than in a macho western actor’s belief that Bakshi is Native American. Filled with insecure frauds, The Party essentially becomes the “real phony/fake phony” conversation at Holly Golightly’s party writ as feature-length satire.
The film eventually unravels into entropy once the children of the party’s hosts arrive with their friends (and a baby elephant) from a political protest, with the sex, drugs, and rock-n’-roll generation effectively usurping the haughtiness of their predecessors. This denouement is a moment of blissful chaos (dig the maid, in a moment straight out of H.C. Potter’s Hellzapoppin’, dancing gleefully after being liberated of her duties), with the Hollywood elite losing their sense of agency and identity; their worst nightmare, the complete loss of control, has been realized. But this is only just a glimpse into an inevitable future, not a sudden and lasting change of guard: Although the finale is just the kind of relief a party should provide, it still doesn’t change the unfortunate fact that, by film’s end, Bakshi is still a lowly actor in a town run rampant with maniacal egos.
Kino’s 1080p transfer of The Party is inconsistent, suffering from too much dust and artifacts, but the picture is sharp and clear with bold colors, particularly in the finale where reds and yellows really pop. The sound fares better, with the surround mix rich and immersive, and a fine balance between louder voices and always-audible whispers.
The slim supply of extras is in need of an upgrade, as most of the content feels badly dated. "The Party Revolution" featurette details the innovative video assist technology Blake Edwards employed on the film’s set, in which, using a TV camera mounted to the film camera, the director would be able to immediately play back the footage that was just shot. While the content here is sporadically interesting, the short doc, made in 2004, suffers from distracting visual embellishments and an overall unnecessary aside showing the "latest" technology in digital filmmaking. But "Inside The Party" featurette provides valuable insight into the making of Edwards’s ambitious production, where the director insisted on an atmosphere of improvisation when bringing to life the 63-page outline of a script. The paltry extras makes one wish for a commentary, or even a newer feature that doesn’t make the ones on this Blu-ray release feel like novelty items. Also included is a trailer and short video profiles on Edwards and producers Ken Wales and Walter Mirisch.
The comically rich visual tapestry of Blake Edwards’s The Party still endures, despite Kino’s half-cooked 1080p transfer.