In the near future, universities will no doubt be bombarded with Phd topics involving the Trump era, just as they were post 9/11 when life inspired a new narrative take on storytelling. Artists have always responded to social change and political upheaval in order to contribute to the conversation through their own medium or because they need catharsis – or both.
In Beatriz at Dinner, the stunning new film from director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White, the political points are made with such passionate intensity that it feels a perfect blending of head and heart. The title might just as well have been: “Guess who’s coming to dinner: It’s Beatriz” so firmly does this sit in the cinematic tradition of social conflict in genteel surrounds.
The film is a masterpiece of psychological observation, captivating tension and superb dialogue.
Salma Hayek plays Beatriz, a spiritually illuminated Mexican masseuse who sees her place on the anguished planet as an opportunity to heal. In the opening sequence, we see the still-girlish Beatriz at home in LA, where her pet goats sleep in her bedroom after complaints by the nasty neighbour, and where she lights candles at home-made altars in honour of loved ones.
Beatriz has stayed close to Kathy (Connie Britton), the well-meaning wife of Grant (David Warshofsky), a wealthy business man. The couple remain grateful to Beatriz for her healing hands when their now healthy daughter was cancer-stricken and undergoing chemotheraphy.
Beatriz finishes work at the cancer centre where she tends to the terminally ill and drives to a posh, ocean-side gated-community to give Kathy a massage before a work dinner party she and Grant are hosting for Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), a mogul business associate of Grant’s. They are celebrating the success of a huge property deal – one more notch in Doug’s corporate belt in a life-time of exploitative triumphs — for the audience, a billboard advertisement for the Trumpentary that will follow.
Noble Beatriz (Salma Hayek) breaks bread with Strutt’s (John Lithgow) Trump-like devil and in mourning for her murdered goat, she lets rip.
Beatriz is on edge – something Kathy quizzes her on. A distraught Beatriz explains that one of her goats – who are like her children – was brutally murdered by the neighbour.
When Beatriz’s car breaks down and with no mechanics available until the morning, Kathy insists that Beatriz join them for the dinner for Strutt and his third wife (the always watchable Amy Landecker). Noble Beatriz break bread with Strutt’s Trump-like devil and with alcohol loosening her tongue and in her heightened state of mourning for her murdered goat, Beatriz lets rip.
The political intent of the film – bringing together victim and perpetrator in a rich getting richer, poor getting poorer world – is creatively and politically obvious – but regardless, the film is a masterpiece of psychological observation, captivating tension and superb dialogue.
The astonishing performances by the ensemble cast, but most notably the adversaries Lithgow and Hayek, elevate the political content to something much more mesmerically human than a political gabfest or liberal, social-justic polemic.
Hayek’s performance dominates with finesse – one moment hot-headed Latina on a high horse, the next a brilliantly incisive political strategist.
Hayek’s incandescent portrayal of Beatriz is a portrait of the human engine room: partly bound by the rules of convention, civility and social hierarchy, partly driven by uncontrolled emotion. Hayek’s performance dominates with finesse – one moment hot-headed Latina on a high horse, the next moment a brilliantly incisive political strategist who understands how the enemy works.
Lithgow plays an almost redeemable monster with a multi-levelled interpretation of the antagonist. At first we laugh at Doug’s gauche sexism, his mistaking of Beatriz for a maid, his condescension – but as the dinner goes on, his more sinister flaws are revealed. It’s impossible to simply laugh at his old-man boastfulness, the monied bubble in which he lives, the effortless vulgarity. He might seem a dinosaur, but Doug still inflicts catastrophe – whether on a decimated village making way for a development or a rhinoceros he shoots on safari.
The brilliance here is in equal measure the script and the cast, both of which elevate a predictable set-up into an unforgettable theatrical gem.
Completing the dinner is a young-gun couple (Chloë Sevigny, Jay Duplass), the husband of which is the up and coming inheritor of Doug and Grant’s world. He is high on making it to this dinner party, high in his new role as prime protege of Strutt. The sexual tension between him and his go-getting wife (perfectly played by Sevigny) is hilariously fuelled by their proximity to power.
The brilliance here is in equal measure the script and the cast, both of which elevate a predictable set-up into a charged and unforgettable theatrical gem. Every detail of the rich folk is perfectly observed, both visually and in the dialogue. Discussions of other women and their humiliations on social media through to their choice of drinks is spot on, as is the attitudes of the men to the women, each generation confirming its own place in the evolution of feminism.
As Kathy, Connie Britton (who some may know as the coach’s wife in Friday Night Lights) is the Empathy Umpire, hedging her bets between Doug’s lack of values and Beatriz’s over-indulgence of them. Screenwriter White scrupulously avoids satirising Kathy, the perfect and kind hostess semi-blinded by privilege, and yet she symbolises the misguided self-congratulation of the upper classes when they attempt to close the divide of social segregation. Beatriz’s behaviour shows Kathy that you cannot have it both ways – a Trump-world requires an unambiguous commitment to one side or the other.
Lithgow’s performance, and the film as a whole, make the comedy and tragedy turn on a dime.
Lithgow’s performance crowns an astonishing acting life. Here he is utterly on song, delivering a masterpiece of generalised “type” – the ruthless, self-aggrandising braggart ripping the planet to pieces – undercut by uncontrolled flutters of conscience. It is as if his working life has held his better-self hostage – but Beatriz’s impassioned purity causes him to loosen the chains.
Lithgow is not quite Trump. More elegant, better mannered, far more intellectual and eloquent – but he aptly stands in for a man of Trump’s generation who has always defined success as a public transaction rather than an existential reckoning. His performance, and the film as a whole, make the comedy and tragedy turn on a dime. How Artega and White bring the at times hilarious conflict to a close is surprising and suspenseful. What might have been an artful moral allegory becomes something much more complex and human. A must see.
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