Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Directed by Miguel Arteta

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Miguel Arteta’s most well-known films might be human comedies like The Good Girl, Cedar Rapids and the Michael Cera comedy Youth in Revolt.  As the movie opens, Beatriz at Dinner has a similar tone.  We follow a single character, Beatriz (Selma Hayek), through a normal day in the life until her car breaks down at the home of a wealthy masseuse client, Kathy (Connie Britton).  Kathy and her husband are set to host a fancy dinner party, and though it’s left unsaid, both she and Beatriz know that Beatriz will stick out like a sore thumb were she to stay.  Kathy’s sympathy wins out, and she insists Beatriz join the wealthy, white dinner party.

This is the set up.  Beatriz is a fish out of water amongst a group of out of touch guests led by John Lithgow, playing another brilliantly hard to stomach character.  He just has a knack for these things, and Lithgow, as Doug Strutt, becomes Beatriz’s complete antithesis.  See, he’s one of those guys who shrugs off lawsuits and thrives on below the table hand shakes to buy up land and develop hotels and shopping centers.  These deals often displace residents, kill off part of the wildlife population and sometimes ruin communities with false promises of incoming jobs.  Strutt is disgustingly wealthy, likely conservative (for what that’s worth), and he lacks any empathy.  He’s a narcissist, is what he is.

Beatriz, on the other hand, is a healer.  As a woman of color she stands out immediately amongst the other guests, and she doesn’t bother to hide once she knows she’s sticking around.  Beatriz likes to talk, and her sense of spirituality at times annoys the guests or seems to them to be nothing more than a relic of a more primitive way of life.  

Beatriz is calm but insistent, humble yet self-assured.  She believes in a certain manner of living, a code she has abided by for years.  Beatriz is a healer, and she believes in fate and the cosmic connections most people cannot see.  When she catches on to Doug’s destructive ways, she becomes quite open with the dinner party that she is here for a reason.

The bulk of the 80 minute film concerns a battle of life philosophies.  Beatriz at Dinner is a sobering, thought-provoking, purposefully frustrating few rounds in the ring between Beatriz and Doug.  As the night pushes on, they drop any initial pleasantries, revealing instead their true character.

Rarely do you see a film go this far.  Mike White’s script never lets up, and in a short amount of time he makes a conversation drama feel as tense and relentless as a David Fincher psychological drama.    I adore this film, but at times it made me extremely uncomfortable.  As someone who is shy in new circumstances, Beatriz’s refusal to blend in made my palms sweat, and yet by the end of the film you understand where she’s coming from, that she has to speak up.  We admire Beatriz because of her sense of purpose.  While Doug begins to fight back at her with his own sense of ego, we get the sense that she is channeling the voice of hundreds of thousands, probably millions of people.  She speaks up for those who cannot because this unlikely setting affords her the opportunity to address someone like Doug, the 1%.

So Beatriz at Dinner is far from a comedy.  It’s never funny, and with how serious the film’s message is, any attempt at comedy might only muddy the water.  It’s hard to call this film entertaining, but it is certainly gripping.  Hayek and Lithgow are amazing (Lithgow will make your skin crawl), and the rest of the cast paints a believable portrait of cut-off, wealthy, white privilege.  Chloe Sevigny and Jay Duplass are likable as a young couple despite their own imminent wealth (“We’re going to be fucking rich!”) and close connection to Strutt.  They bring out the worst of the characters precisely by being so likable.  Despite their affluence and disregard for their own fortune, they have a certain chemistry typically meant to be admired inside of a movie, and this likability only makes the film more tragic.  We want them to open their eyes and see the bigger picture, but they never will.  

As the fish out of water, Beatriz is to some degree the audience surrogate.  For the first half or so of the film, she is our vehicle into this new world.  We see the strange affluence through her eyes, and this is meant to highlight just how insane this kind of wealth is.  She hardly reacts to it all, instead only remaining nice and quiet, so that the audience can make their own judgments.  

Around the midpoint things change, and Beatriz takes control of her own personality.  This is when she drops the polite demeanor and lets her true colors shine.  Later in the film she will tell Kathy, ostensibly a friend, in a grave voice, “you don’t know me.”

Such a story construction, I think, puts the onus on the audience to consider just how unfathomable such affluence (and disregard for humanity) is.  It’s not enough for us to observe this bubble world because it’s not really a bubble.  The characters who can’t see the bigger picture, like the ones here, are ruining the bigger picture.  They think only of themselves, but their influence is far-reaching and disastrous precisely because of their limited perspective.  Beatriz at Dinner doesn’t hold back.  The film, shown through Beatriz’s arc, asks us what the hell we’re going to do about the problems presented onscreen.  The film puts the onus on the audience, and by the end this feels like a steep warning about where the world is headed, not just because of Strutt’s ignorance but because of our own too.  If Strutt and the other characters (as charming as Kathy and company can be) can’t see the harm they’re causing, then perhaps neither can we.  

Beatriz at Dinner asks that we take a step back and think about what might be left unsaid or unconsidered.

Up Next: Primal Fear (1996), Through a Glass Darkly (1966), Insomnia (2002)

 

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