Looking at Miguel Arteta’s Beatriz at Dinner, the similarities between it and another one of writer Mike White’s projects, HBO’s Enlightened, are impossible to deny. Both works feature a protagonist who has visibly endured a lot, is no longer the person they once were due to the damage they’ve seen done to the world, and has dedicated their life to attempting to better those around them. There’s also the undeniably similar score by Mark Mothersbaugh, gorgeous shots of people interacting in intimate spaces, and the fact that Arteta directed multiple episodes of the series.
But where Enlightened’s protagonist Amy Jellicoe is a force of nature, propelled by optimism amidst a world full of sadness, Beatriz (Salma Hayek) finds herself unable to maintain any semblance of hope as the film goes by. Her goat has been murdered by her neighbor, her car has broken down, and she’s having dinner at the house of an upper-class client whose daughter she grew close to during a fight with cancer.
As a healer and as a Mexican woman, few of the white people in the house take her seriously. They recoil at her embrace to say hello (as I’ve seen many an American do while interacting with Latinx). They silently joke as she divulges personal information and discusses emotions openly. They treat her like a child or undesirable who needs to step away while the parents stay up to talk. The list goes on, and on, and on.
It’s fascinating to watch how White and Arteta present all these microaggressions on screen without being outright critical at first. White’s script isn’t remotely sympathetic toward these individuals, most of whom are presented as vapid and greedy. If anyone is allowed a modicum of depth, of grayness in a sea of black and white (or, more bluntly, good and bad), it’s Connie Britton’s hostess, who shares a semi-personal, mostly professional relationship with Beatriz due to her healing work on her daughter. Jay Duplass, Chloë Sevigny, Amy Landecker, and David Warshofsky have no distinct characteristics; all the better to fade into the sea of whiteness that Beatriz is so frequently surrounded by.
Cinematographer Wyatt Garfield does wonders with every close-up of Salma Hayek and every impeccable shot that frames her from behind, surrounded by indistinguishable blurs of whiteness and privilege. It’s stifling, being so surrounded by condescension and pity for simply existing, and capturing the tension that comes with that is what Beatriz at Dinner does best. This peaks in each interaction between the working-class Beatriz and Doug (John Lithgow), the epitome of upper-class businessman one might expect Trump to hire for his soulless Oval Office.
Part of what makes Lithgow such an effective villain—and not in the De Palma and Dexter way where murder is his trade—is his ability to spew hate with a total casualness and present us an image we’re painfully used to. White doesn’t hold back with his views on destroying ecosystems for profit, hunting, and illegal immigration, to the point where one could argue for heavy-handedness. But his presence, and this level of excess, serves as a perfect foil for Beatriz. To borrow a title from Pedro Almodóvar, she’s a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown, as signalled by phone calls to a friend and fantasies about existing in a natural plane that doesn’t seem terrestrial (among other dreams).
For every minute that Beatriz at Dinner spends letting its titular character challenge the bigot in the room, it allows her to remain a silent participant in the room, as the others would like her to be. There’s power in silence, and it’s very reflective of the way many a minority has learned to navigate rooms in which they aren’t wanted: quiet analysis. We know so much about those who oppose us, but they know nothing about us. The film aptly reflects that and lands the gut punch by emphasizing it through dialogue as it winds down. “I kind of feel like I don’t even know you,” the one white woman we’ve seen has a tendency for kindness says. Beatriz’s response is harsh in its truth: “You don’t know me.”
Hayek’s role demands a lot from her performance in its restraint. To the characters, she serves as a symbol for all of these white characters to project their stereotypes onto (regardless of whether or not they know her). To a minority audience, she’s a reminder that this is, unfortunately, all we’ll ever be to them. And that is what Mike White and Miguel Arteta emphasize with the last act of their film, doubling down on the bleakness as the waves crash and life goes on, but only for the privileged few for whom “it’s not so sad.”
Directed by Miguel Arteta; written by Mike White; starring Salma Hayek, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, Jay Duplass, Chloë Sevigny, Amy Landecker & David Warshofsky; 82 minutes.