Arteta: Beatriz at Dinner (2017)

Beatriz at Dinner came out a month after The Dinner and both seem to belong to a similar moment in American cinema, even if they go about articulating that moment in very different ways. Each positions the dinner party, and the comedy of manners, as an index of the vitality and longevity of cinema as a middle-class medium, which is to say that both films offer an experience that somehow defies discussion at dinner parties, or in polite middle class conversation. Both, too, do this by way of an outsider, a figure who is unable to reconcile themselves to the dinner party within which they are situated, and to which they are expected to contribute in a more or less seamless manner. However, whereas The Dinner’s outsider is a disenfranchised member of the middle class, the outsider in Beatriz at Dinner is a member of the working class, rendering the middle class coordinates of the dinner party in question more austere and remote in the process. In fact, Beatriz at Dinner is probably more advanced in its critique than The Dinner, since where Oren Moverman suggests a devolution of the middle class, Miguel Arteta depicts a world in which the middle class has vanished entirely, leaving only hyperbolic wealth and the workers that service it.

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That narrative plays out by way of Beatriz (Salma Hayek), a Hispanic immigrant to the United States, who works as a healer in Southern California. Although she lives in very modest circumstances, most of Beatriz’s time is spent with wealthy clients, both through a local hospice and door-to-door visits. From what we glimpse in the opening montage sequence, Beatriz gives herself personally to all her clients, but she seems to enjoy an especially close relationship with Kathy (Connie Britton), the wife of millionaire magnate Grant (David Warshofsky), after nursing their daughter back to health following an early bout of cancer. When Beatriz’s car breaks down after a session at Grant and Kathy’s estate, then, it’s only natural that Kathy should invite Beatriz to stay for the dinner, and then for the night, although Grant is hesitant to include her in to what promises to be a high stakes dinner party. Chief amongst the guests is billionaire property developer Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) and his wife Jeana (Amy Landecker), while they’re also joined by Alex (Jay Duplass), who is brokering a deal with Doug and Grant, along with his own wife, Shannon (Chloe Sevigny).

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In effect, this evening is partly a business transaction and partly a dinner party, as the wives finds themselves contouring and cushioning the financial relationship between their husbands as it reaches its final stages of consolidation. Key to that cushioning is the pretence that the evening is purely social in intent, since one of the most distinctive features of Beatriz at Dinner is the way it deflects an absent middle class into the middle class diction that has been coopted and colonised by these new aristocrats to render themselves more relatable to each other and to themselves. Nowhere is that clearer than in their interactions with Beatriz, whom they try to treat as just another middle class subject, despite the fact that neither they nor her bear the slightest resemblance to middle class subjectivity. Conversely, the sublimation of finance into friendship allows Doug to pontificate on virtually everything in his purview without having to ever quite acknowledge that it is his venture capital, and his venture capital alone, that keeps the table so enraptured by his every word. It goes without saying that Lithgow utterly nails this role – he has a millionaire’s mouth – exuding the paternalistic beneficence and patrician “interest” in the less fortunate that so often seems to be the legacy of the entire baby boomer project, along with a certain kind of knowing incredulity that refuses to be ever taken by surprise, let alone to counter the possibility of lives and experiences outside of his immediate milieu.

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Still, it’s Hayek who steals the show, partly because of the way in which she handles the unusual evolution of Beatriz’s character. For the first part of the film, Beatriz is quite a placid presence, and yet she’s too present in every scene ever to be passive or plastic either. Instead, you sense a wealth of knowledge stored up in her body, and in her orientation to other bodies, which is part of makes her such an effective healer, and explains why her processes often don’t require direct bodily contact at all. Over the course of the evening, Beatriz attempts to communicate this bodily knowledge to the guests, partly due to Doug’s pontifications, and partly due to her suspicion that he may have been directly responsible for a disastrous hotel project that decimated her home town. Sometimes these bodily communications are “aggressive” (at one point she leaves the table), sometimes they are “reparative” (she returns, later, to a sing a Spanish song to the party), but in the end their valency is never quite aggressive nor reparative, or at least can’t be articulated in any one single aggressive or reparative gesture, as evinced in the double ending in which Beatriz imagines murdering Doug only to leave the house and immerse herself in the ocean on the way home. In part, that’s because what Beatriz doesn’t appear to be directly looking for acknowledgment, reparations, or anything at all from Doug, and instead searching for a way to articulate and inhabit the truth of her body against the backdrop of a white discourse whose very tact and tastefulness depends upon disavowing precisely that embodied truth.

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In other words, Beatriz at Dinner evokes the experience of being Hispanic, and inhabiting a Hispanic body, in a world in which it is precisely the middle-class discourse of difference – now abstracted to a white aristocracy anyway – that prevents that body articulating itself. Not surprisingly, that generates one of the best performances of Salma Hayek’s career, since it’s critical that she shape her proprioceptive presence as much as her actual diction, with much of the drama revolving around the shifting and contested terrain between where her body ends and those of the other guests begins. In fact, I am tempted to say that this is a kind of summative role for Hayek, whose unusual position on the fringes of tasteful white Hollywood stems in part from her refusal to ever subordinate this Hispanic embodiment into a more deracinated and domesticated otherness. Some directors have used this to their advantage, others have caricatured it, while others have tried to ignore it, but the fact remains that Hayek has never quite abandoned the telenovela roots that drew the attention of Hollywood in the first place, which is perhaps why Beatriz at Dinner often feels like an allegory for her own current orientation to Hollywood, and a reflection upon the evolution of her own filmography, as much as it is a study and evocation of this particular character.

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As a result, Beatriz at Dinner also feels like Miguel Arteta coming full circle, since his first film, Star Maps, also focused on the experience of inhabiting a Hispanic body in Hollywood, revolving around a young Mexican man whose aspirations to the silver screen see him taking up hustling on the side, and eventually landing the producer of a notable soap opera as his biggest client. At the same time, Beatriz at Dinner is a high point in Arteta’s ongoing collaborations with screenwriter Mike White, particularly recalling the hushed Californian spirituality of Enlightened and its designation of the West Coast as the locus for a sensory revolutionary ambience and impulse that can only place through and upon the body. All Beatriz’s wisdom feels embodied, and all her aphorisms seem to speak to a particularly embodied way of knowing, texturing the immeasurable space between her and the guests with a tactility that makes it impossible for them to ever quite ignore her physical presence, as much as they might try to talk over her or condescend to her as if she were just another white middle-class subject. The great twists of the film is not that Doug is actually not the millionaire responsible for destroying Beatriz’s village, but that this doesn’t matter, since Beatriz knows him in another way anyway, as the mouthpiece for a particular way of containing her body that becomes evident from the very moment he first opens his mouth.

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As the night proceeds, the guests are contoured and even – perhaps – changed by their different ways of relating to Beatriz, yet to its credit the film is not especially interested in those changes. While it’s hard to imagine a better ensemble cast, Arteta deploys them quite sparingly, preventing the audience ever feeling at home in the dinner party, and ensuring that the awkward dialogue is never too domesticated, or allow to devolve too neatly into the more polished awkwardness that has itself done so much to remediate and renew the middle class comedy of manners over the last decade and a half. Unlike The Dinner, Beatriz at Dinner is uninterested in even lamenting this devolution of the middle class – let alone hypothesizing how it might be restored – with Beatriz abruptly leaving after declaring to Doug that “the future is coming for you, it will touch you” and responding just as curtly to Kathy,, who up until this point in the film has been her biggest “advocate”: “I feel as if I don’t know you.” “You don’t know me.” (and then, to Doug again, “I know I know you.”)

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What ensues next has proved to be the most divisive part of the film, as Beatriz manages to arrange a lift to drives her home down the Pacific Coast Highway. With no warning or explanation, she asks her driver to stop on a nondescript stretch, gets out, walks over the sand dunes, wades into the water and then swims out into the midst of the ocean, as Arteta cuts between the rolling waves and the mangrove swamps of her home town. Some critics have seen this as a non-ending, while others have seen it as a defeatist ending, assuming that it depicts Beatriz’s suicide. Yet I think that to call this a non-ending is to beg the question of who the film’s ending is actually for, since it’s certainly a non-ending if your orientation is towards the dinner party, but not necessarily if your orientation is towards Beatriz. Similarly, to call it a suicide is perhaps to miss the sensory exuberance of the scene after the constrictions and claustrophobia of the dinner party, as Beatriz finally seems to be free to express the knowledge and experience stored up in her body for the very first time.

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What I saw in this stunning final sequence was an affirmation of the Hispanic body – and the Hispanic female body – beyond any narrative exigency, as the circumambience of sea, sand and sky ensures that this is about the only place in the world that the film envisages in which Beatriz can fully articulate her body as something other than an object of pity or condescending sympathy. That’s not to say, either, that this epilogue feels arbitrary, or disconnected from the rest of the film, but that it articulates, retrospectively, how emphatically even the most innocuous and incidental conversations at the dinner party have worked to narrativise this body, and shape it to their own imported middle-class rhetoric of liberal tolerance. In its evocation of the feeling of being Hispanic, and its yearning for some kind of individual and collective Hispanic embodiment, it is perhaps a film that could only be directed by a Hispanic director and led by a Hispanic actor, with all the remaining members of the cast utterly sidelined from their typical position as charismatic centerpieces to feel almost irrelevant, or even non-existent, by the time this magnificent epilogue has been brought to a close. A daring act of auteurism, in an industry in which auteurism tends to be defined as white, it’s a film that Arteta might just have been waiting to make since Star Maps – and a spiritual sequel to Star Maps – that evokes the toll of Hollywood on Hispanic bodies more dexterously than any contemporary film I’ve seen.

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About Billy Stevenson (382 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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