Beatriz at Dinner
Directed by Miguel Arteta. Starring Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton. (2017, R, 83 min.)
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., June 16, 2017
Signing a petition is easy. Calling your congressman – worthy, yes, but that’s only 10 minutes of your day gone. You wanna really test your core values? See how you respond when you’re sipping white wine with a monster.
A masseuse and holistic healer, Beatriz (Hayek) didn’t get an engraved invitation to this particular dinner party, a chichi to-do in a Los Angeles gated community. When her Volkswagen breaks down at the house of wealthy client Cathy (Britton), Beatriz is asked to stay for dinner. (They have a warm relationship – Beatriz helped the family through a cancer crisis – although Cathy’s husband raises an eyebrow at the last-minute invite.) A small gathering of business partners and their wives celebrating a windfall, the party includes a developer mogul named Doug Strutt (Lithgow). Doug is the kind of captain of industry our culture has for most of its history lionized; certainly at this party, he is the sun around which everyone else rotates, eagerly refilling his glass and laughing extra heartily at his jokes.
Everyone but Beatriz. As Hayek plays this outsider – a Mexican émigré in a plainly different income bracket, at first mistaken by Doug as “the help” – she is watchful, curious, even welcoming (she greets these strangers with a hug). But she’s not going to fluff anyone’s feathers. And while she is fluent in English, she doesn’t speak the same language as this moneyed set; their glibness doesn’t compute. So when Beatriz begins to better understand, over the course of the night and many drinks poured, Doug’s character – his oppressive business dealings, the African safari killings for sport – she’s not about to be confined by the strictures of polite society. It isn’t her society.
Director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White, whose creative partnership first started with the influential 2000 indie Chuck & Buck, cast a bemused eye on the one-percenters. There’s a marvelous tracking shot stalking the three wives as they click their stilettos 10 feet to the right to strike a new pose; they look like the kind of women used to having a camera trained on them. Still, there’s something a little off-putting about this smirking picture of affluence. Back pats, I guess, to the audience for being able to recognize their grossness; I longed for a hard elbow to challenge my beliefs, not just reaffirm them.
With a jauntier score, a sense of humor sharpened for the jugular, you can picture a version of Beatriz that’s straight satire. Instead, what the filmmakers are aiming for is something more strange and under the skin and almost unbearably sad – a mixture of mood well familiar to fans of White’s HBO show Enlightened. I can’t imagine that tonal complexity working – and it does work, sometimes exquisitely – without Hayek’s performance. Unvarnished and often silent, she holds the camera’s gaze like a dare. She cuts such a striking figure, you’ll want to follow her anywhere … and where the film ultimately follows is utterly gutting.