Beatriz at Dinner : Movie Review
5 stars out of 5 (Outstanding)
Writer : Mike White
Director : Miguel Arteta
Producer : Christine Vachon (Killer Films) , Aaron L. Gilbert (Bron Studios)
It is exhilarating to witness the result of a throbbingly intelligent idea realized onscreen with no interference from the producers. "Beatriz at Dinner" is a rare gem that sparkles with just one story thread that is woven with audacious sensitivity from start to finish. One can imagine the multitude of trains of thought that could lead to a picture like this. When throwing a party at your home, many of you would have sometimes wondered how it would be to have guests of totally different backgrounds finding themselves in the same room. It can be a riveting social experiment, and it also has potential to be a nightmare which may forever unsettle you. Marry this with USA circa end of 2016 where an unpredictable maniac - racist, Mexican-bashing and populist - named Donald Trump was chosen by a large chunk of Americans to be their President. The ensuing cocktail can well play out like this fascinating social drama.
Some marketing geniuses have labelled this a comedy - you see that tag for this movie all over. It is a comedy - never mind dark or otherwise - just like how Mexico and U.S.A are bosom friends with Mexicans being showered with flowers, kissed, garlanded and given instant US citizenship by the millions every day at the crossing border.
Salma Hayek's selection here recalls the boldness of George Clooney - a Hollywood star going the non-populist way in exposing America's dark side. Mike White's script is a ceaselessly provocative triumph of a "class clash", shot through with rich swirls of perspective and humanity, with a finale that calmly refuses to play safe-'n'-cozy. And director Miguel Arteta executes this project with pure focus, a luxurious aesthetic of both space and personal space where there are no cuts and brisk pacing like a commercial hack job ; rather there is a painfully honest focus on characters and the way they behave.
Beatriz (Samla Hayek) is a sensitive lady who carefully conducts her life in California. She is a massage therapist at a cancer center ; she lives by herself, keeping the company of a cluster of pet animals, her life perspective a holistic one informed by an ethical, eco-friendly and vegetarian lifestyle. Her childhood was a difficult one in Mexico, from a family disarticulated by poverty and systemic abuse.
One afternoon, she drives out of the city to the large ocean-side estate of a lady client Kathy (Connie Britton). Work over, she's about to leave but her car won't start and as the mechanic is far away, Kathy generously invites her to stay over and have dinner. Kathy and her husband Grant are very wealthy, exemplified by their palatial home and that evening they've called over two couples who are their business contacts. Rather than shrinking away at the edges of the gathering, Beatriz calmly gets involved in the conversation. To her quick internal dismay, she realizes that these people, among which one is the billionaire Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) are only interested in talk of money-making and a generally insensitive, even aggressively selfish streak of pursuits. Beatriz may be a shining example of Mexico's best, alas she is not the creme de la creme of Mexico's finest diplomats. Her honest speech and some bold outbursts, are first met with polite silence and some risible asides, which then escalate into disturbing outcomes.
Uncomfortable moments stud the narrative - clearly the film-makers don't care about faking fuzzy goodness. Beatriz is a much better human being than any of them but even she stumbles once when the ladies pass around the smartphone photo of a well known lady's herpetic vagina and Beatriz accepts the screen to have a look. She does look and is then crestfallen at the depravity of people circulating the leaked photo - what else did she expect to behold ? That is a minor aberration in what is otherwise a flawless demonstration of a virtuous, gently determined lady cast in the middle of crass wealthy folks.
Beatriz's own contributions to the confab are first listened to with some interest but once her companions subliminally realize that these run counter to their own interests she is quickly cut off. Her first concern about how the "earth is dying" is met with this fate. Her second talk at the dinner table, though admittedly very ill-timed with meat on the menu, is a remarkable one about how a captured octopus was dealt with by her father - through her words one can vividly visualize that sea creature's flesh weakly writhing in agony.
The mansion itself is a subtle dig at how appropriation plays out. Its design motifs nod to the Mexican and Spanish culture. Beatriz's native Mexico is admittedly not a glowing example of a uniformly humane country but her own beliefs are admirably nativist in their earth-preserving belief, in stark contrast to her dinner companions.
Salma Hayek is superb in emboding that gentle lady from an underprivileged background who is unfazed to calmly state her stand without aggression in the midst of brutal capitalists. Every time she makes a return to this small crowd of moneyed people and the couples flinch at this middle class outsider who dares to say a word against them , many viewers may also also cringe - some because they look down upon her, some others because they feel for her and fear she will be punished for her transgressions. The class divide gapes like a festering wound and one of the movie's big achievements is the way it lays bare this cruel disregard some of us have for those with less money and from another less-prized society.
Hayek wears no make-up in this movie - the unadorned somewhat tired face even shows what may be some introduced blemishes in sharp contrast to the glowing pretty mugshots we usually see of her. Beatriz's casual attire, however, accentuates her shapely figure but the overall effect is still that of a lady who would not have the footmen deferentially saluting. Her accent is shaved off its little American influences and cut back to reveal as much of the Mexican flavour as possible - both in her accent and her spoken ideas, she is different from her guests.
Beatriz's "protector" for most of the movie is Kathy (Connie Britton) and it is very interesting to see where that arc peters out. Britton is a triumph of casting here (the casting is superb throughout this chamber piece). She is tall, slim, stately, sexy and has a suitably aristocratic hauteur to her visage and yet when she sighs, the sympathy in her face and the gentleness of her body language reveal someone who might be counted on to look after a less privileged outsider. Kathy fills this part for a good part of the story but her hollowness is manifest at many crucial junctures. Her husband simply does not want Beatriz in the cozy dinner group but Kathy insists. But she does not follow up this gesture with true sincerity.
When the ladies chat in the spacious ground behind the house, Beatriz is left out and then some moments later, Kathy turns to look at her, makes a little noise of self-chiding and walks out to bring Kathy into the fold - the surfacial politeless indicative of actualy saying "heck if you're here and have not disappeared somewhere , then you might as well be with us for a while". Kathy to her credit introduces Beatriz as her friend, not as a "massage therapist", and she genuinely praises Beatriz, but at the dinner table when there is carefully outfitted meat on menu and it turns out Beatriz is a vegetarian, Kathy off-handedly tells the waiter - "Oh for her please get some salad and rice on the side". She does not warn her staff either when one of them cuts off Beatriz's speech so that he can declare the menu offerings. Kathy's behavioural shifts, some subtle others not so, are a handy synecdoche of what might be her overall attitude to life - making commisserating noises about poor people but doing precious little concretely about it. Granted without doubt that quietly feisty Beatrice does some outrageously blunt things as a guest, but imagine what kind of woman we would have noted Kathy to be if she had firmly stoody by Beatrice no matter what. When push comes to shove, she...
The chief person who raises Beatrice's hackes is Doug Strutt, played by the formidable John Lithgow who has that knack of playing nicely avuncular characters as smoothly and texturefully as he can portray a wicked icon. Strutt is a billionaire, not blinking before displacing underprivileged folks off the lands for his hotels - he calmly tells Beatrice that everything on the planet is dying anyway so why not take our pleasure whatever way we can. Beatrice sees in him the heartless hotelier who displaced her townspeople in her childhood - she even checks whether he was the same person who did it but even though he is not, she realizes he is of the same ilk.
The tall filled-out Strutt never unleashes aggression towards the lady who attacks his cold capitalism. He good-humouredly shruggs off even some serious assaults from Beatrice. The story sets up a fascinating interaction between them. She connects with him and impresses him twice. The second is when she sings a beatiful song, but it is the first instance which acquires some remarkably mystic shades. At the end of their main courses when people have left the table, Beatrice gently kneads his shoulder muscles. Strutt reacts with moaning joy, seemingly pleasured far in excess of the stimulus. Is he faking it ? No, I believe some deep rooted knot in this greedy tycoon is genuinely released when the healer gives him that little shoulder massage. At the end, his behaviour towards her could even be called sporting but there is no mistaking what he is.
A forceful event is shown to happen at the end. We then get a glimpse into a sensitive person's mind - that person is able to calmly see and evaluate what happens after the committed act. It is what differentiates that person from others. We then see another disturbing event happening at the end. Did we actually see it in the pattern the movie inspires one to see and analyze ? Beatrice at Dinner proves to be holistic in so many wonderful ways.
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