Sundance London: Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Beatriz at Dinner

Trump-era America is under an unforgiving spotlight in Miguel Arteta’s visually beautiful dark comedy Beatriz at Dinner, starring a luminous Salma Hayek.

The Exterminating Angel

by Alexa Dalby
Beatriz at Dinner

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Salma Hayek is Beatriz, an alternative therapist who feels the earth needs healing. She’s an inspirational healer in a public cancer treatment centre. Stranded in the upmarket Newport Beach mansion of one of her wealthy private clients Cathy (Connie Britton) after giving her a holistic massage, she’s invited to the dinner party she’s holding to celebrate her husband’s (David Warshofsky) lucrative business deal. Beatriz was the healer who helped her daughter during her cancer treatment, and Cathy describes her to the other guests patronisingly as a family friend, though clearly she is a subordinate.

The guest of honour at the dinner is arrogant, billionaire Trumpian property developer Greg Strutt (John Lithgow), who is happy to rape and destroy the environment through his business deals building hotels and golf courses, since he believes that we’re all going to die anyway so we might as well have fun. And having fun, for him and all the dinner party guests (Chloë Sevigny, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker) consists of making, and bragging about having made, obscene amounts of money by exploiting their position as ‘haves’ over the ‘have-nots’. Beatriz’s family originally left their village in Mexico when it was destroyed by one such similar development.

We see Beatriz is a serious outsider, still dressed in her work clothes, in contrast to the trivial gossip and inconsequentiality of the conversation of the gaudily dressed wives. Initially she is just as awkward about staying for dinner as her host and hostess were when they insisted she stayed. But we also see her quietly observing and assessing her fellow guests and the effective music (by Mark Mothersbaugh) hints that it can’t end well. Expected to stay tactfully in the background, and at first treated as one of the help by Strutt, after a few glasses of white wine, Beatriz has no inhibitions about challenging the prevailing capitalist ideology and superficiality she is surrounded by.

What initially seems to be a fish-out-of-water comedy of manners takes a more dangerous turn after dinner. Beatriz has been set up from the start as a humanitarian but also a somewhat extreme animal lover – she keeps one of her pet goats in her bedroom because her neighbour strangled her other one. So when Strutt starts to show photos of the big game he has slaughtered on his African safaris, she cracks and her anger explodes to the embarrassment of all, who are toadying to him. But meanwhile the film has been illuminated by Wyatt Garfield’s cinematography, which bathes the Spanish-style mansion in a golden glow, creates a blue midnight that highlights burning lanterns and the silver of the sea and flashbacks into the idyllic, peaceful rivers and the mangroves of Beatriz’s childhood.

The unspoken tensions of the fateful, Buñuelian dinner itself are portrayed by cutting between close-ups of restless faces, grimacing, reacting, all alert to social nuances – hostess Cathy trying to hide her panic and improvise a plan to salvage the evening. And maybe even the obsequious butler (John Early), so assiduously keeping the privileged couples supplied with constantly refreshed glasses, is secretly despising them in his manner.

It’s a clash of two opposing world views that affect the planet, with the unspoken realisation that the time has come when we must choose between them. Despite a magical realism detour into revenge at one point, the film ends with thought-provoking surprise. It’s one not to miss.

Beatriz at Dinner is showing in the Sundance London film festival.

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