By Christopher Sharrett.
There are certainly films more perceptive about class and race than Beatriz at Dinner, a film I put off seeing since its basic idea (a lower-class woman stuck in an upper-class dinner) seemed too familiar. The film is indeed based on an old concept most of us would recognize, but what it accomplishes is very commendable, its ending a bit compromised but only a bit, and flowing very sensibly from the central character’s convictions. I was far too tardy in seeing this film, even after I noted that it was directed by Miguel Arteta, who made Cedar Rapids (2011), a funny, well-observed comedy about business life in the Midwest, and The Good Girl (2002), an intelligent, modest film about the dead-end life of a working-class woman in the Southwest, and the limits placed on her by male authority. There other things important to Beatriz’s realization, like the presence of Christine Vachon as co-producer, one of the voices for a reasonably independent American cinema, and the score by Mark Mothersbaugh, one of the founders of Devo, among the cleverest and most satirical New Wave bands, just right for the age of Reagan (do we need more evidence today that we are devolving?).
Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a masseuse and holistic healer at a cancer hospital in Los Angeles. Not being very favorably disposed to holistic treatment as medicine, I wondered about the film’s point of view – is this to be taken seriously? I don’t quarrel with one’s spiritual life depending on how it is presented to (or imposed on) others; Beatriz is a serious person and an inclusive one – a plastic Buddha and an image of the Virgin Mary decorate her dashboard. She has a very wealthy client named Kathy (Connie Britton) to whom she administers massages at Kathy’s amazingly opulent (but still tasteless in its postmodern pastiche) mansion; Beatriz treated Kathy’s cancer-stricken daughter, earning Kathy’s respect. After Beatriz’s broken-down car won’t start, Kathy tells her to stay for dinner, an idea to which husband Grant (David Warshofsky) objects. They expect to host the wealthy Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), to whom they owe much of their extravagant wealth. But Kathy prevails. Her fake liberalism establishes an important tone. The dinner guests are fairly courteous yet loathsome – they at first think Beatriz is a servant. The guests (including the obnoxious, alcoholic Alex [Jay Duplass] and Shannon [Chloe Sevigny]) tower over Beatriz. Hayek, in sneakers, jeans, and sweater, has never looked more diminutive, even squat – this decision might be one of the film’s excesses. During the dinner and its aftermath in the living room, the nature of the hosts is slowly revealed, as jokes are made about Beatriz’s immigration status, Mexico, the poor. Lithgow’s wife Jeana (Amy Landecker) says she is going on safari in Africa. Doug joins her remarks with tales of his own; it is obvious these people aren’t talking about a photo safari. Doug passes around a picture of a dead rhinoceros, himself squatting over it with a high-powered rifle, recalling Hemingway or Teddy Roosevelt. This is the image of the bully/sadist and coward who must prove something by killing a dumb animal. Doug tries to wax lyrical about the thrill of the confrontation with the dangerous beast (“better than sex”), as if this animal had a prayer against a hunter’s large-bore ammunition, fired from a protective redoubt. Only Beatriz is appalled by the image of the dead rhino. She has just suffered the death of a pet at the hands of a neighbor. She has from early in the evening sensed that she knows Doug; a quick search on Kathy’s computer confirms what she felt. Doug is a real estate investor, in other words among the worst kinds of parasites, and one very representative of our financialized, neoliberal economy in the age of Trump. At last, Beatriz says he is killing the world itself, at which point all liberal politeness ends as Kathy ends her support of Beatriz. A tow truck is called to take Beatriz and her dead car away – that’s all I will say about the denouement. As Beatriz is about to leave, she sees a Latina housemaid, dressed in appropriate maid’s uniform. There is no dialogue, but one might guess that Beatriz wonders about her own state in life: has she kidded herself that she is more than a servant, for all of her (sincere) beliefs about healing?
Some may feel this film is the left taking out the crying towel in an obvious, heavy-handed way – it seems to me that such accusations might arise in a society now heartless and barbaric, but I must recall that the Trump “base” isn’t the whole nation, and that activism (and human sentiment) still lives. What interests me most about this film is its restraint, despite its lapses in judgment (inserts of images of nature). Doug is horrible, but horrible mainly because he tries to make what he thinks is real human contact, never ceasing his arrogance and condescension. He tells Beatriz to live a little, because we all die anyway. So living means killing others, including the planet. In a scene that rings very true, Doug becomes death incarnate, in a now-prosaic form. Beatriz is life and the erotic, represented in Salma Hayek’s extraordinary face.
My sympathy for Beatriz is such that I couldn’t help but think about the women and children being wrenched from each other by ICE agents (what an appropriate acronym), and sent to Mexico, Central and South America, to countries where life has become untenable because of U.S. interventions, including “free trade” doctrines. I think about our white citizens who applaud this, as if they are getting anything at all out of it except a barbaric media spectacle. The term “illegal immigrant” would strike me as laughable were it not so wrong and bloody-minded. The U.S. stole half of Mexico during various adventures, not really culminating in the Mexican War, termed by some of its famous participants (like young Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee) as one of the most unjust wars in history. Lee should know, because the intent of the affair was the expansion of the Southern slavocracy, something accomplished in part with the so-called Texas Revolution of 1836, featuring the venerated Battle of the Alamo.
Beatriz at Dinner has some important observations about gender, as we see the wives finally dismiss on Beatriz, and fawn over their vacuous, monstrous husbands. We could say that they go along to get along, but this tends to excuse what they represent. They love wealth – and hurting others – as much as their husbands, reminding us of gender as a matter of ideology and consciousness.
We might revisit some of our history as we watch our nightly news on MSNBC, and give money to this or that progressive concern. Those of us despairing at another summer of superhero blockbusters might see Beatriz at Dinner; some may see it is a needed reminder of who we are.
My thanks to my wife, Joan Hubbard, who offered some stimulating insights about this film.
Christopher Sharrett has taught film for many years at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor of Film International.