Moral grandstands and how to hold on


OPENING cans of worms for dinner: Kathy (Connie Britton), Beatriz (Salma Hayek) and Doug (John Lithgow). Photograph courtesy

CRUELTY, HUNTING, MAKING money and having fun at anyone’s expense are some of the values central to Beatriz at Dinner. Others take a holistic, meditative line. Told with clarity, it is a film that is grown up in sense of balance and of narrative. Astonishingly fine performances by Salma Hayek opposite John Lithgow are the cherry on top – but be warned: there are no clear answers in this battle of values, and you will be discussing the nuances of the film itself for weeks.

Beatriz (Hayek) is a healer. But she’s a woman who carries with her a history of great suffering. Born in a small village in Mexico, she lives in suburban America. She meditates. She keeps goats. She’s a vegan. She drives a beat up old Volkswagen. And she dispenses alternative healing to people with cancer at a healing centre.

Enter Kathy (Connie Britton). Living in an exclusive, gated suburb with her husband and much wealth, Kathy is the mother of a young woman who conquered Hodgkin’s Disease with the therapeutic and holistic assistance of Beatriz. The women consider themselves friends.

But there’s a glitch. Beatriz is not white. And there’s a missing beat in how much the two women are able to share, given politics, prejudice and everything in between. A flat car battery forces the hand of fate and finds Beatriz at dinner with Kathy and her husband (David Warshofsky) together with two couples. It’s a formal dinner and a “work related” one, in which Beatriz has no real place.

There follows a deeply cringeworthy set of exchanges in which values come clashing at one another from developed perspectives. The three white couples are honed stereotypes, very well moulded on convention. Beatriz stands out like a sore thumb with her jeans and running shoes, her un-made up face and her unapologetic beliefs, which the long-haired, heavily done up women can only relate to with shallow expletives and gentle faux sympathetic titters.

Doug Strutt (Lithgow) is the mogul they all want to impress. He’s big, loud and unambiguously bombastic and egocentric. He gets his thrills from canned hunting. To him, wives are a thing about acquisition – he’s currently on number three (Amy Landecker). In short, by conventional accounts, this is a hideous character. He cares more for the sating of his hedonistic character’s whims than for the sanctity of other people’s lives – let alone the trees and birdlife his very many projects will destroy in the process. It’s all about him.

And thus Beatriz meets Doug. She’s earnest and shocked. He’s patronising and smarmy. But wait: you may think this is a tale of good versus evil. You may think you know which values are represented by which character. You may think this is all cut and dried. To the film-makers’ credit, Beatriz at Dinner presents both sides of the argument with nuance and complexity. Bringing in a touch of magic realism, the work is a parable and features an ending that perplexes you into thinking about the parameters of victory and defeat.

On paper, the character of Beatriz seems a naive bleeding heart liberal, a crackpot with values that have no place in the real world. Strutt seems a cardboard cut-out, beating the proverbial drum for jobs, wealth and a western sense of nakedly acquisitive progress, where blood can be found beneath anything beautiful. On screen, Hayek and Lithgow lend these roles an unequivocal three-dimensionality, allowing the work to sizzle and haunt.

  • Beatriz at Dinner is directed by Miguel Arteta and is performed by Natalia Abelleyra, Amanda Borella, Connie Britton, Enrique Castillo, Jay Duplass, John Early, Salma Hayek, Amy Landecker, John Lithgow, Sean O’Bryan, Chloë Sevigny, Soledad St Hilaire and David Warshofsky. It is written by Mike White. Produced by Aaron L. Gilbert, David Hinojosa, Pamela Koffler and Christine Vachon, it features creative input by Mark Mothersbaugh (music), Wyatt Garfield (cinematography), Jay Deuby (editing), Joanna Colbert and Meredith Tucker (casting), Ashley Fenton (production design), Madelaine Frezza (set) and Christina Blackaller (costumes). Release date: November 29 2017.

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