Sally (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a famous, well-respected actress married to Joe (Alan Cumming), a novelist about to direct a movie adaptation of his recent novel, which incidentally is all about their marriage. Sally is an open wound, a neurotic. She's possessive of Joe, but fails to connect with anyone. Joe, for his part, is a narcissist, incapable of the slightest commitment (of course, he doesn't realize this himself). To celebrate their anniversary, and their reconciliation after a year's separation, the couple hosts a party for their closest friends. They also invite their next-door neighbors, who are threatening to sue them for not quelling their dog's barking. More than a dozen people arrive: the beautiful young actress picked to star in Joe's film (Gwyneth Paltrow); Sally's best friend and her actor husband (Phoebe Cates and Kevin Kline); the director of Sally's latest movie and his fretful wife (John C. Reilly and Jane Adams); a successful photographer (Jennifer Beals), who years ago had an affair with Joe.
How does the party end up after the entire group takes ecstasy? The ensuing maelstrom delivers what is promised by this film genre--a theatrical display of released inhibitions, a series of agonized and blue confessions--but it goes well over the edge, with someone nearly drowning in the pool, and sudden news of a sister's fatal overdose. The dog even turns up missing.
The film conjures three different spaces that act together. The most obvious of these is cued by the film's title: the party held at Sally and Joe's perfectly appointed, mid-century modern house. The party determines the film's duration by seeming to unfold in real time--from the scene of a mid-morning yoga lesson to a shot of the next morning's plastic garbage bags. While the house is a finite space, there's never a sense of it closing in upon itself. The camera's constant movement may account for this effect--it floats along the surface of the dialogue, like a paper boat borne from room to room by a stately breeze (though the dialogue itself is abrasive and discordant). Even so, the action seems fixed within a single frame, so that it appears motionless--like a still photograph.
And like the subjects of a photograph, the film's characters refer to an off-screen space that significantly inflects the first. They discuss other people, places they have lived, events in their past, which together comprise an alternate space as determinant as the one we see. Finally, a third dimension is created by the audience's awareness of the stars playing parodies of themselves, so that the movie transacts with reality: Oily Kevin Kline is married to cold Phoebe Cates; Gwyneth Paltrow makes up in dumb luck and warm smiles what she lacks in talent; Parkey Posey is a rigid blank with a vaguish Bryn Mawr accent.
In one sense, The Anniversary Party is equivalent to what Woody Allen does when he casts an all-star ensemble and adopts a semi-documentary style. But here, the Hollywood crowd doesn't have to squeeze itself into the customs of the Upper East Side. The actors have taken control of the means of production from poolside, and the result is a vanity project faintly similar to the movies that John Cassavettes made with family and friends in his own home. According to Leigh and Cumming, who also directed, it was emerging digital video technology, less cumbersome and far less expensive than film, that enabled their revenge upon studio filmmaking. Much has been made in the last few years about the democratic potential of digital video--how it promises to inaugurate a new era of proletariat and minority representation in mainstream media. This makes it all the more amusing then, when Sally and Joe give orders to their Hispanic servants ("Not now, America," "Thank you, Rosa"). In fact, the shots of the Mexican women gushing at the guests' painful toasts have a grotesquerie reminiscent of Buñuel or Polanski. At other times, the film recalls a Joe Orton farce (perhaps this is Cumming's influence), or one of Pinter's existential fruitcakes (syrupy and leaden).
Watching The Anniversary Party is like encountering a contemporary art photograph: not a still life or a landscape, but a black and white portrait of apparent intimacy, like the photograph given in the film as a gift to Sally and Joe, which shows the couple in a half-waking embrace. If the film itself were such a photograph, it would be the kind seen on the white wall of a New York gallery, or over the toilet in an expensive bathroom, or the kind that sells Scotch whisky in the pages of Vanity Fair. What meaning does the film convey, if any, beyond its signification of the leisure life? Can it be admired solely for its formal accomplishments--its framing, angle and focus?
When looking at a photograph, the person, circumstance, or theme represented is rarely what seduces you first. A photograph appeals most immediately as an act of representation--as a charade. The Anniversary Party is a charade that at one point even involves a game of charades, and the titles the players must guess are telling: "Katzenjammer Kids," a turn-of-the-century Sunday comic featuring Hans and Fritz, naughty brothers who pull creative pranks and are spanked over someone's knee in the last panel; and Shostakovich's "Jewish Folk Poetry," a song-cycle based on texts translated from Yiddish. It's difficult to imagine more studied references to the twin forces of modernism--mass culture and high culture--which are uniquely called into conflict by photography, and simultaneously resolved by it. Photography is also remarkable for its ability to mediate the particular and the general, to mingle fashion with reportage; it collects signs, rearranges signifiers and signifieds, demonstrating how meaning is infinite and circular (in the film, this is apparent with its multiple influences).
Clearly, The Anniversary Party is a story of disillusionment that is mired in illusion. Can one of these terms exist without the other? To make a photograph of a subject, the subject must first exist. At least that much is certain. Or is it? This seems to be Leigh and Cumming's problem: For them, bourgeois angst is as real as rocks or the wind in the trees. The rest of us know this isn't true. What does it mean when the guest who nearly drowns then shuts himself up in the laundry room, beats his naked chest, and sobs, "Be a man--buck up--be a man"? The thing that prevents us from slipping completely into fantasy, from drowning in our solipsism, is the fact that we have bodies. Perhaps the directors know this at some level, and it's the reason why The Anniversary Party is filled, not with bodies, but faces. Famous ones.