Review: Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

A twisted message delivered in stealthily beautiful visual style.

I’m trying to remember the last dinner movie I saw that didn’t end as a farce. Perhaps it’s inherent to the dinner party movie, which is all about portraying the disparity between people. If it’s done well (especially if it’s done well), it shows a situation so complicated that it can’t be neatly resolved in two hours, because the differences between people can’t be resolved so simply or, in many cases, at all. And so, the commentary culminates in cartoonish chicanery.

A deceptively understated visual style that is as rich as it is imperceptible.

Holistic healer and Mexican immigrant Beatriz (Salma Hayek) finds herself at a dinner party for wealthy businessmen and their wives. Her interactions, particularly with Doug (John Lithgow), a white, capitalist, Earth-raping, animal-sport-hunting, moustache-twirling villain, are predictably awkward – until things kind of take… well, not quite a left turn, as a twisty, windy, sneering and, to me, odd zig-zag off some crooked path over there.

(In case you missed the “spoilers for everything” disclaimer for all reviews on this site, maybe only read on after you’ve seen “Beatriz at Dinner”).

Part of the reason it feels so zig-zaggy is because of the level of film making apparent here. Miguel Arteta‘s direction and Wyatt Garfield‘s cinematography give Beatriz at Dinner a deceptively understated visual style that is as rich as it is imperceptible. Beatriz at Dinner comprises shots, sequences and exchanges that are incredibly difficult to pull off, stealthily expert and, like Salma Hayek’s look in this movie, fundamentally beautiful despite the makeup. Take the composition and lighting of shots which frame Beatriz as the odd one out, or how complicated it is to cover a conversation between up to eight players without disorienting the viewer. Add the almost abstract cutaways in Beatriz’s mind, or the subtly sublime composition of such shots as the dénoument of holistic healer Beatriz’s rage at Doug’s capitalist boor.

How might the film’s message been affected if Beatriz were white?

Where Beatriz at Dinner ends up, however, has me questioning whether (a) I properly understand it, or (b) something was lost between the film makers’ intentions and the final product. Given the expert work on display, I should assume it’s (a), right?

In the end, the only character I have any sympathy for is David Warshofsky‘s Grant, the husband / host. He’s the only one who doesn’t say a single thing that might make him sound like a dick. While his wife Kathy (the always-wonderful Connie Britton) seems like she’s trying to hold the situation together, it’s one she’s created, a product of her obliviousness to the people and situations around her. Grant spends the whole dinner party attempting to balance his professional and personal responsibilities, without once being a jerk to either his well-meaning wife or the increasingly out-of-control Beatriz – who, it turns out, is a self-absorbed narcissist, leaving unhinged voice messages (is she even speaking to a voicemail?) to someone who may or may not even exist.

So if Beatriz is, in her own way, a conceited monster, what’s the message here? Had her character also been white, and not a Mexican immigrant, the equivalency proposed by Beatriz at Dinner may have more clearly communicated (to me, at least) – that self-righteousness can be just as toxic as corporate greed, that there’s more than one way to poison the planet or other people. While Beatriz doesn’t cross the line Doug does (he’s her rhino), she ultimately becomes the blood in the water (that poor tow truck driver).