9 Aug 2017

Beatriz at Dinner is the perfect film for the Trump era

9:29 am on 9 August 2017

While other films trade in allegory and analogy,  Beatriz at Dinner confronts the dystopia of the present.


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Photo: NZ International Film Festival

It's a funny consequence of the time in which we live - one where horrible people become presidents of countries and all our wildlife dies off because no one can be bothered recycling - that movies and television have become obsessed with dystopia.

It Comes at Night; The Handmaid’s Tale; War for the Planet of the Apes: across nearly every genre now there is no shortage of speculative and fantastical fiction, determined to decide just how rotten people can be.

But why would we want to see some imagined hell world when we have more than enough to deal with in our own? It is here - in the very fraught moment in time that we currently live - that Beatriz at Dinner, the latest from director Miguel Arteta and screenwriter Mike White, plants its feet.

As the title suggests, Beatriz at Dinner centres entirely around a particularly uncomfortable encounter that occurs when a Mexican-American holistic healer, played by Salma Hayek, stays for dinner following a consultation at the home of her wealthy client Cathy, who she also considers a friend.

To begin with, all this amounts to is a rather awkward comedy of manners. Beatriz, warm and spiritual, is instantly out of place at a table of white, affluent yuppies who speak almost exclusively of money and the crass ways that they make and spend it. However, when her initial bemusement fades, it becomes gradually, painfully clear that in this setting Beatriz is more than just out of place.

Much like Jordan Peel’s masterful Get Out, Beatriz at Dinner is concerned with the idea of being welcome - and why just being told you’re welcome doesn’t mean you are. Beatriz is allowed into a sphere to which someone like her might never normally have access - literally crossing a boundary, as she enters the gated community in which Cathy lives. There she is unexpectedly confronted with people, ideas and images that are not only an affront to her senses, but also trigger the trauma in her past.

The worst of these people, it seems, is Doug, a power hungry billionaire property developer who thinks only of money, deals and big game hunting. Sound familiar?

Played with exquisite grotesquery by John Lithgow, Doug’s penchant for destruction is what finally disenchants Beatriz from any illusions as to her place in this world. As she gradually comes to understand the role he may have played in the devastation of her hometown by developers, their interaction brings Beatriz to a kind of spiritual breaking point.

To a cynic, Beatriz at Dinner might be a touch too literal - a fictionalised account of just what might happen if a man like Donald Trump were to be confronted by one of the immigrants he seems to so despise. Yet in spite of the clear allusions at play here, this is far more than just a fantasy meeting of two caricatures. Instead, it's a nuanced portrait of a class divide that is as alive and well in the micro sense as it is the macro, and a somewhat exasperated look at what happens when that divide is traversed.

As we perpetually grapple with how to represent and respond to the way the world is changing with popular culture and music, it is no wonder that so many filmmakers are turning to the tropes of dystopian and alternate histories - it is, perhaps, easier to supplant the current political climate onto a spectacular fantasy world than it is to engage with it as is.

Beatriz at Dinner sees no need to dilute its story with allegory or analogy. The world it seeks to critique - one where the will to destroy is somehow valued over the ability to heal - is right before our very eyes.

Beatriz at Dinner is currently screening in the New Zealand International Film Festival.