Bright Lights Film Journal

<em>Beatriz at Dinner:</em> Eating Up the Whole World

Kathy (Connie Britton) and Beatriz (Salma Hayek)

Moloch whose mind is pure machinery! Moloch whose blood is running money! Moloch whose fingers are ten armies! Moloch whose breast is a cannibal dynamo! Moloch whose ear is a smoking tomb! – Allen Ginsberg, Howl

* * *

We are all at this dinner, invited to eat up the world whole.

The bummer is that we are shadowed and haunted by a small, unassuming personification of conscience, Beatriz. She is not with it, the tempo of elite inclusion and tacit recognitions of the other guests. She is all kinds of physical and spiritual healer, a caretaker of the sacred spaces of the Earth and its creatures. She is cultivating sacred spaces, not high end real estate. She wants to cultivate the whole world and every creature in it as sacred.

The other guests, however, are in one way or another involved in “development,” which in Beatriz’s view means de-sanctify it.

Beatriz ascribes to Nature’s own seasonal rhythms of development, which are not inscribed with a sense of progress but rather of cyclical repetition: life, death, and re-propagation. This is, in a millennial techno-globalized capitalism’s perspective, nothing more than retrogression, a form of destructive atavism that can, at best, be tolerated.

The kind of development we prefer involves a “creative destruction” in which, for example, people lose jobs, fertile land is replaced with malls, luxury condos and hotels, spas where the upper class – like Kathy, Beatriz’s hostess – go to have their bodies and spirits tended to by a serving class.

So Beatriz at dinner is tolerated, a quaint oddness, by Kathy, determined to be kind and generous to this less fortunate “friend,” a descriptor Beatriz finally objects to. “You don’t know me,” she tells Kathy, fully aware that Kathy knows her as a species type – an unfortunate Kathy can bestow her goodness upon in a way that strokes her own self-image.

Screenshot: Grant (David Warshofsky), Beatriz, and Alex (Jay Duplass)

Kathy’s husband Grant, at one point, will berate Beatriz for her ungrateful responses to Kathy’s friendship. That word, along with “friending” and “unfriending,” floats now in a cyber social media reality that has succeeded in hollowing out any authenticity remaining in that bond in a society in which a “war of all against all” is the ticket.

The divisions here are many: the impassable cultural divide between private compound and broke-down car, between capitalized Nature and uncapitalized Nature, between a private elite class and an inappropriate outsider, between the ease of killing and the difficulty of healing, between destructive and creative forces, between Moloch as Ginsberg describes him and Blake’s Los, a redemptive imagination in which “All life is holy.”

Our empathy extended to Beatriz is joined by our fears of a dystopia toward which we are heading, one constructed by our own human intelligence. She is the only one at the table not “anti-developing” the world, not bringing about our own extinction. I see the dystopia aura in the patches of darkness that perforate this movie; a palely lit body of a dead, white goat. Patches of dark sea that eventually draw Beatriz into it, giving herself to the Earth’s waters, defeated by Strutt-Moloch, whom she cannot kill because even his life is sacred to her.

Screenshot: “Patches of darkness …”

“We’ll be gone in another twenty years,” Strutt tells her. “Why shouldn’t we enjoy ourselves while we’re here?” Why shouldn’t we eat the whole world and everything in it for our own enjoyment? Beatriz’s unspoken response? Surely the Buddha’s: “Life is so short. How can we be anything but kind?”

The dark tragedy resonating in this movie touches a third rail in our collective cultural psyche and therefore we cannot ignore it. It is the hand of the magician we are directed to watch while the magic that surprises goes on elsewhere.

Beatriz is here the stranger that no one really knows how to talk to or respond to except as a curious oddity that allows one to dramatize what empathy is supposed to look like. But this extension of empathy is difficult for a wealth class too long living in isolated private compounds of wealth. She remains the “Other” around which swirls a confusion of empathizing efforts and patrician distancing. She is a voice of Mother Earth, herself a small, brown Mother Earth-like icon, but also a woman born in Mexico, maybe illegal as Strutt says for a laugh. We in the audience want to take her in, but she is to us also an outsider. We are not her. She makes us as uncomfortable as she does Kathy and Grant, Shannon and Alex, Doug and Jeana. We are as mystified by a woman who has a goat in her bedroom and as uneasy about her white octopus story as the elites.

Grant and Doug (John Lithgow)

What I observe surrounding her is a kind of obliviousness that ranges from the moral, across the societal and the domain of the personal, to a hierarchy of being that seems to have devolved into ego and appetite. Accordingly, much ado is made of what is on the menu.

Beatriz’s pivot away from the menu announcement, her narrative that uncomfortably transgresses the dinner protocols in play, is pivoted back to the menu. Dinner choices are announced; Kathy has not cooked any of it, but she is the architect behind it. I could go vulgar Marxian here and say that is what the rich do: eat up the labor of others. But the finer point is that a desired feature of an elite life is not having to do the work but to have leisure for dinner parties and spiritual healing.

However, if you are oblivious to any dimension beyond a material competitive acquisitiveness, exactly why the need for spiritual healing? Unless it is an entertainment, a sign of being elite, like having a butler, a cook, a masseuse, a gardener . . . a spiritual healer. Beatriz, however, cannot heal what is before her, though only she at this dinner party displays an instinct for kindness, an instinct unknown, unrecognized, and unshared by the others.

Doug Strutt champions a return to that abyss, a return that everyone at that dinner table, except Beatriz, has already made. She is not morally oblivious, but she certainly is somehow preserved from the commanding ethos that rules the world she is in, a world she does not live in, rather like the way Dostoevsky sought to portray in Prince Myshkin an innocence that a godless world of greed and depravity could only judge to be idiocy.

Doug Strutt

Our dilemma then in this movie is this: If we are not her and we are not them, who are we? This question arises from our uneasiness in identifying with any of these characters, an uneasiness that falls back on the uncertainty of our own self-identification.

So, we begin to work our way to our own identity through these diners, from the transparent to different degrees of opaqueness.

Doug Strutt is Moloch and Grant one of his minions. “I wouldn’t have this house if it wasn’t for Doug,” Grant angrily tells Beatriz, who has not queued up in proper deference to Doug Strutt’s wealth and power.

Shannon and Alex. The youngest couple, the millennials, self-empowered, bolstered in confidence by the cybertech world they command. So young, already the elite of assortative mating. What do we see?

Screenshot: Shannon (Chloë Sevigny) and Alex

They are celebrating Alex’s success in some deal connected with Doug, the Money, and Grant, the Builder. I suspect Alex has gotten around some building or worker safety regulations or some title claims and so on. He is ready to party. He and Shannon are the new millennial partners, a more entrepreneurial, careerist relationship than mere marriage. She declares herself some sort of project manager, recently in France, which she hates, along with the French. This is a meme to which they all connect, on the level of “You can’t get good help these days” or “Why should I tip if it’s their job to serve with a smile?”

“You’re so beautiful,” Shannon tells Jeana, the older woman, the wealthier woman, the Queen Bee among them because her husband is the Money behind it all. Shannon learns the memes of elitist response to everything from those who have matured in the life role she wants for herself.

Neither Shannon nor Alex is responsible for the condition the world is already in, the darkness that fills Beatriz’s vision; they weren’t around to do the damage Doug Strutt has already “done over” all the world. But this young couple shows no signs of seeing or wanting anything different from the world Doug offers. They show no sign of comprehending what Beatriz’s beef with Doug might be. They seem more appalled by Beatriz’s behavior than Doug himself, who like every Prince of Darkness knows what he is destroying, knows who his enemies are and is prepared to win, against all odds. The Prince does not have to be deferential the way the young Shannon and Alex must.

So, the dystopic darkness engineered by our investor, owner and builder class, represented by the three men at this dinner, is equaled in darkness I think by the depressing willingness of the young couple, Shannon and Alex, to bend to the greed and rapaciousness of their elders. They show no sign of wanting to do anything more than follow in the footsteps of a man who kills, with both money and gun.

When Jeana tells them a truly awful account of a woman’s diseased body and then they pass around her phone with such photos, Beatriz looks away. There is an absence of humanity here, beyond just a sense of decency or any restraining moral sense, but an absence of respect or any feeling for the injured and suffering. Jeanna’s role as the wife of a man, Strutt, who has divorced wives, is shaped by both what I call the elite separatism of the wealthy but also by her own sharp elbow joisting with a ruling tyrant like Strutt. She, like Beatriz, is subaltern but in a different cultural world. She fights to hold her place. We can see a similar effort on Shannon’s part as she announces her own business credentials, identifying her place in the Strutt world but at the same time identifying her subaltern status within it.

Grant, Kathy, Jeana (Amy Landecker), and Strutt

So, we see that matters are far less transparent with the women in this movie, and I came to that perspective after discussing the film with my own daughter, Brenda, to whom I owe the insights below, claiming all blindness as my own.

There is a dynamic and also a stasis to the diners’ world, an order of things that is first removed and distant, and that is static, but also an insider order of things that is at table with us and that is dynamic.

There is in this exchange a continuous effort to create and sustain recognition, understanding, and acceptance, to weave a fabric of possibilities that preempt disruption, that hold off disastrous breakdown. And this is work done by all the women in this movie except Beatriz, who is herself the catalyst of disruption.

Beatriz threatens, for instance, the domestic order that Kathy has established, just as Shannon tries to bring her “Who cares what’s going on? I’m celebrating” husband into that same order. And it’s clear from the back and forth between Jeana and her husband Doug that she is trying to hold together her own domestic order, the order of marriage to a man who, as I say, has brooked no challenge from his other wives. Her sparring with Doug amounts to mending, mediating, and taming his “Take no prisoners” ways. He is all destruction; the construction that enables everything, including this dinner party, to go on is a paralleling raveling and holding together in which all the women but Beatriz are engaged.

Screenshot: Beatriz

Grant, Kathy’s husband, obliges Kathy’s wish to invite Beatriz to dinner, although he clearly sees no reason to display some kind of “passionate Conservatism.” What is the need to welcome difference and diversity, work to be “politically correct” or even “compassionate” as George W. proclaimed if there is no countering force punishing you for not doing so? What leverage does Beatriz have to receive an invite to dinner? What leverage does any wage earner have in a plutocracy to receive an invite to dinner?

The Losers have no leverage with Grant; none of the animals who live with Beatriz has a card to play in the game Grant, Doug, and Alex are in. The whole planet, in fact, seems unable to punish the Winners, perhaps a reason why the consequences of a global warming are not to be acknowledged by those who have already won in the game of domination. This game of Thrones seems to have already put the economic Winners on the throne.

In their single-mindedness, or what Blake would call “single vision,” the men are not concerned with keeping a social order of compliance and concessions. There is no incentive, perhaps with deep primordial roots, for the men to step back from the consequences of their own assertions of domination. If there is a Trump segue in this film it is here: he asserts a power that no one has leverage against, a power that cannot be made to face the consequences of his willfulness.

The dinner here goes on as long as it does because the women are keeping the bottom from falling out. And when it does fall out, it does so because another woman has finally refused to comply and mend an order of things that is destructive of life in ways that are not recuperable.

Kathy, Shannon, Beatriz, and Jeana

The need to make a functioning patchwork quilt out of the blind obliviousness of the entrepreneurial men is a need recognized and fulfilled by the women. But it has, as the film reveals, its limitations. Doug Strutt and associates at that table will allow no slowing down of their “developments.”

The Flight of Moloch, by William Blake (1909)

Beatriz does not assassinate Strutt-Moloch perhaps because his death will not change the forces that have brought him into existence. Perhaps, too, we can see that the need is to destroy not the destroyer but the surrounding conditions of our dinner party. The need, then, is to tame the destruction and the economics that underwrite it and expand a recuperative healing, a regeneration of a social inclusiveness, to all those at dinner with Beatriz.

There are causes in this film for the audience to draw back, as Beatriz does from becoming a destroying agent, though she finds in suicide her only alternative. She has succeeded in cultivating a sacred space for us within which we find ourselves, at film’s end, more inclined to save the dinner than burn it.

* * *

Screenshots are from trailers freely available on YouTube. All other images courtesy of Roadside Attractions.