Beatriz at Dinner [2017] – Salma Hayek Steers this Slightly Underwhelming Topical Drama

A dinner table has often proven to be a riveting dramatic setting for film-makers working on shoe-string budgets. From chamber thrillers to low-key philosophy-mumbling dramas, semi-formal dinner parties could elicit spectacular clash of ideas. Director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White’s quasi-satirical drama Beatriz at Dinner (2017) uses the dinner party excuse to pit a conscientious, hard-working ethical immigrant against a table full of nauseatingly rich people who perfectly fits the definition of ‘obnoxious one-percenters’. Arteta and White’s previous creative collaboration includes pitch-black indie comedy Chuck &Buck (2000) and the reasonably good 2002 dramedy The Good Girl (Jennifer Aniston delivers one of her best performances). Both the films are comedy of manners with an incisive tragic layer attached to it. The writer-director’s third collaboration is designed as a mordant allegory of Trump-era politics, but the incoherent script and on-the-nose social commentary stops it from fully harvesting the ingenuity of the setting. Nevertheless, the end result is definitely watchable, powered by Salma Hayek’s intuitive performance.     

The film opens with Beatriz’s (Salma Hayek) dream of the mangrove swamps in her small town which is supposedly destroyed by the real-estate developers. She alarmingly wakes to the bleating sound of her goat, enclosed in a pen within the bedroom. Beatriz lives in Altadena, California amidst her pet goat and dogs. Buddha and Virgin Mary decorate her car dashboard and rear-view mirror respectively. The first few minutes traces Beatriz’s routine which involves working at alternative clinic that treats cancer and other terminal disease patients. Beatriz is a massage therapist, spiritual healer, and a truly empathetic person. An emotion of hurt and pain passes over her face while seeing cancer-afflicted patients or gazing at the billowing smokestacks or while noticing the patch of oil scarring the glorious view of Pacific Ocean. She almost comes off as a saint, until she visits her long-time rich private client Kathy (Connie Britton). Kathy lives in a high-end luxurious gated-community of Newport Beach with her insensate husband Grant (David Warshofsky). Beatriz has helped Kathy’s 15 year old daughter to survive from the agonies of cancer and exhaustion of chemotherapy.  Now the girl is doing her college and Kathy considers Beatriz as ‘part of the family’. On this particular day, the wealthy couple is hosting a small dinner party to celebrate the success of major land development. Kathy has requested a rub-down to freshen-up for the upcoming party.

During the massage session, Beatriz reveals how, despite the saint-like posture, her life isn’t exactly ideal. It’s been a long time since she is displaced from her picturesque Mexican small town. Although she isn’t blessed with a human companion, she finds solace in tending her animals. But recently Beatriz’s beloved goat has been killed by a bullying neighbor. Later, when her car breaks down, Kathy immediately invites Beatriz to stay for dinner, pleading the insolent husband to place 'the healer' at dinner table of moneyed people. First to arrive is young power-hungry couple: Alex (Jay Duplass) and Shannon (Chloe Sevigny). Before conversing with the couple, Beatriz hugs them trying to establish a soulful connection. While Beatriz raves about holistic healing, the couple hijacks the conversation with their slightly patronizing comments. Then the important guest of honor arrives: loutish, Trumpian land encroacher Doug Strutt (John Lithgow) with his wife Jeana (Amy Landecker). Beatriz's initial efforts to engage in conversation with the women leads to simple comic situations, the comedy is in witnessing Salma Hayek’s bewildering looks. Beatriz talks of elemental energies, whereas the other ladies fervently gossip about the leaked nudes of a reality TV star. The narrative turns into social drama territory when Doug demands a drink from Beatriz, assuming she was ‘part of the staff’. After the formal introduction, Doug’s irritable behavior towards Beatriz doesn’t necessarily cool off. And, the dinner only gets heated-up by their uncomfortable verbal exchanges.

Salma Hayek relishes the chance of playing an unglamorous, odd-one-out character. Her Beatriz doesn’t believe in empty exchanges and frustrating societal niceties. She just wants to talk about authentic human feelings or nature and animals, while the myopic view of the rich guests & hosts desires the prospects of acquisitions, mergers and debauched memoirs. Hayek’s internal performance brilliantly conveys this conflict of interest. Although some dialogues come off as preachy, Hayek convincingly delivers the words, inciting us to root for her righteous fury. I feel that none of the characters are profoundly shaped. The problem is their broadly emphasized, dichotomized stance (healer vs destroyers). If not for the excellent ensemble (John Lithgow is effective as unrepentant one-percenter), the characters would be more of one-note personalities than what they are in the reasonably better final product (the performances doesn’t entirely transcend their caricatured portrayal but it’s sobering enough to keep us engrossed).

Arteta’s intense frames ably immerse us deep into Beatriz’s feelings of unease. Wyatt Garfield’s cinematography, despite the largeness of the mansion, instills a sense of claustrophobia. Even Beatriz’s brief sojourn outside the house or to the tow-truck brings a sense of relief. Mike White’s script sharply addresses the casual, fine-tuned showcase of racism and white supremacy. The rift between accepted social behavior and morality leads to certain interesting observations (for example, Doug’s bragging about his upsurge of primal blood-lust). Furthermore, the moments like when Doug peevishly questions Beatriz’ place in racial ladder (“Where are you ‘really’ from?”) cuts a little deeper than the blunt environmental & political commentary that tinges the later part of the narrative. The vignettes of verbal encounters puts Beatriz in a truly overwhelming position, but her ultimate disentanglement from this position was wholly dissatisfying. 



Within a lean running time of 82 minutes, Beatriz at Dinner definitely posits plenty of intriguing moments and affecting performances. Perhaps it could have been a sharper social satire, if the occasional sermonizing tone and the incoherent denouement are done away with.  

Hunger [1966] – An Intense Study of an Artists’ Literal and Existential Starvation

Hunger is a sensation whose pictorial representation obviously could be understood by people all over the world. Hunger can be a ticking time-bomb. The primal urge for a little piece of meat could make us shed our so-called civilized behavior. Hunger can degenerate an individual and spawn anarchist communities. In Les Miserables, Jean valjean steals a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s hungry children. An act done out of desperation which lands him with a harsh prison sentence. In cinema, the word ‘hunger’ often brings to mind the wiry frame of Charlie Chaplin’s tragicomic character ‘The Tramp’. Mr. Chaplin extracted laughs from the Tramp’s efforts to overcome hunger, yet he designed some of the most poignant scenes of hunger ever experienced in cinema. In Modern Times, ‘The Tramp’ daydreams about food freely available in the immediate vicinity; a sequence that makes us laugh instantly, while on second-thought makes us feel a little sad. I couldn’t forget Tom Joad’s ‘I’ll be there’ speech in Grapes of Wrath. The sensation of hunger was also tangibly felt through the characters in seminal masterpieces like ‘Bicycle Thieves’, ‘Seven Samurai’, ‘Pather Panchali’, etc. Amidst all these haunting portrayal of hunger in visual & literary medium, Danish director Henning Carlsen’s adaptation of Knut Hamsun’s 1890 novel ‘Hunger’ has had a great impact on me.

‘Hunger’ aka ‘Sult’ (1966) was filmed on-location in Oslo, Norway. In the period, the movie was set, Oslo was called by the name ‘Kristiania’ (from 1877 to 1925). This film also happens to be a rare co-production work between Scandinavian nations. Producers and artists of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden came together for realizing this grim portrait of a dispossessed man. Controversial author & Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun’s novel is about a struggling writer who strive to maintain dignity and pride, despite the burgeoning existential troubles. We first see protagonist Pontus’ (Per Oscarsson) gaunt figure from the back as he is leaning against the rail of a bridge. Krzysztof Komeda’s (Rosemary’s Baby) eerie musical score takes us closer to Pontus’ perceptions. The lean, bespectacled Pontus looks over the derelict apartment buildings, the gushing river water under the bridge, while scribbling away few lines on a piece of paper with a pencil. The scribbling could be the seed for a great creative endeavor or for bout of madness. The way Pontus eats the paper he has just scribbled on points us to his unforeseeable bleaker predicament. 

Director Henning Carlsen uses both the point-of-view shots and the distant, populace’ viewpoint shots to observe the nature of Pontus. There’s a sense of detachment in Pontus’ views and in those frames, Carlsen more or less wants viewers to understand his stricken status rather than put themselves in his shoes. In fact, for the most part the viewers take a place among Kristiania’s population to observe Pontus’ antics. Whatever the point-of-view is, Pontus is an enigma. Only one thing becomes clear in the early stages of narrative: the starvation is self-imposed and he vehemently rejects charity and pity. Pontus places his hope in an article he has written. Like the scribbling we saw in the first frames, the article could be either great or just a useless rambling. If his writing is accepted by the local editorial office, he may receive 10 kroner and a way out of poverty. He also desperately applies for a bookkeeper position in the neighborhood grocery position and stands in line for ‘fire brigade’ selection. The random people Pontus meets in his sojourn through the grimy, stone-paved street platforms suggests that he had a better life in the past. We aren’t informed about what had led to this utter desolate state. Evicted from the boarding house, he is on the look out for food and job opportunities, but as an ascetic, Pontus maintains some strict rules.

Most of Pontus’ behavior rests between absurd and baffling. He pawns his waistcoat to drop a kroner into a beggar’s hands. He often asks the time to policemen wandering around the streets; watches over the clock-tower and pretends to correct time at his non-existent pocket-watch. The obsession with the passage of time may hint at the heightening of his existential crisis, whereas the act of asking time to policemen is shown to be one of the rare occasions, when Pontus tries to forge a connection with the outside world. In a streak of absurdist humor, Pontus knocks at the doors of apartment dwellers, asking to meet persons he had conjured from his imaginative mind. He does these absurd things to contain the burgeoning madness. In other minor efforts to contain hunger, Pontus chews at a bone like an animal and day-dreams about fighting with a dog (for a juicy piece of bone); he also tastes dust and bits of paper. His growing insanity is pretty evident on the occasion he sees a pretty, bourgeois girl. Pontus follows her, uttering cheeky comments. In his imagination, she is ‘Ylajali’ (Gunnel Lindblom), a mythical, radiant feminine figure. The young woman is also intrigued by the strange-looking protagonist. In the following episodes with ‘Ylajali’, we get a closer look at Pontus’ palpable emotions. The central conflict, however, is between Pontus’ pride and the wild hunger. At one moment he yells ‘All is lost, ladies and gentlemen!’, while at another moment he is as calm as a sage. Pontus is so caught up in his inner world that reality most often swirls around him.

The surface and simmering emotions of Pontus couldn’t have been expertly revealed in the frames, if not for Per Oscarsson’s majestic performance (won the best actor award at Cannes). It’s a very demanding performance for Oscarsson (he is there on every scene), who captures polarizing emotions of pride and craving, hope and disappointment within little fleeting moments. The actor is particularly at his best in the bittersweet rendezvous with ‘Ylajali’ at her posh house. In the early moments, Oscarsson’s Pontus remains as an odd figure, but when we gradually immerse ourselves in his world, an emotional resonance is strongly forged. His performance has the silent power to slowly grow upon us in the repeat viewings. From a formalistic point-of-view, Carlsen’s imagery is a wonder and thoroughly intriguing. The uncontrollable urges reflected in the day-dreams are brilliantly visualized; the brightened frames suggesting Pontus' twisted sense of self-importance. The recreation of old Kristiania and its populace pretty much evoke a neo-realist setting. Yet, the distinct Scandinavian brand of mordant humor or absurdism separates the film from Italian neo-realism cinema. Furthermore, Carlsen’s quirky zoom-ins and intimate observation of Pontus’ physical and emotional spasms imbues an equally scarring movie experience on the viewers.

Although Knut Hamsun’s novel was written at the end of 19th century, the general apathetic nature of the populace could also well resonate with today’s technological-savvy urbanites. People are so consumed by silly conflicts and material desires that they are so unconcerned about the humans around them. We need a little suspension of disbelief to accept that the good-looking upper-class girl has taken a shine to derelict, homeless person (with rotten teeth). Yet, the inevitable path to their doomed romance is pretty clear. They both are stuck in the bubble of lust rather than standing on the common platform of love. This nature of self-absorption is often closely scrutinized (like in a scene when children playfully torture a helpless old man just for fun). In the narrative, the characters are often caught in their own world that they can’t lend helping hand to fellow humans. Pontus simply strives to break those invisible barriers or restrictions. Ironically, Pontus is also very much stuck in his inner world. By keeping up outward appearances, and politely wishing the strangers (by removing his hat), he also tries to maintain a false sense of civility.  But, Pontus’ inner world is mostly designed of imagination and passion than constricted, egotistic point-of-views.  However, the hunger combined with existential agonies turns his imagination into hallucination or rampant madness. So, in the end Pontus is left to take the only path available to him. In fact, all seems to be ‘lost’ for the artist, who chooses pride and isolation over the urge to satiate different kinds of appetites.  

Hunger aka Sult (112 minutes) is a must watch film for lovers of serious, contemplative art-house cinema. The sensation of ‘hunger’ lingering in each & every frames of the narrative would leave a powerful, everlasting impact on cinephiles. It’s one of the best, profound character studies ever made, worthy enough to be in the league of Robert Bresson or Ingmar Bergman’s masterpieces. 

Girlfight [2000] – A Boxing Movie with Feminist Underpinnings and a Bewitching Lead

The tough-looking personality and outstanding looks of Michelle Rodriguez has pigeon-holed the actress to repeatedly play feisty characters. She confirms to Hollywood’s standard of ‘tough chick’ as opposed to ‘soft chick’.  The Fast and Furious franchise, Resident Evil franchise, Lost TV series, and Avatar provided the much-desired fame and money maintaining her place in the spotlight. But, Michelle Rodriguez commenced her acting career with a bravura performance in indie film Girlfight (2000). Directed by Karyn Kusama (The Invitation), the boxing movie with feminist gloves didn’t just gaze or ogle at Rodriguez’s physical toughness, but also provided her the space to portray the character’s vulnerabilities. The premise Karyn Kusama’s movie travels is pretty familiar, yet there’s some real freshness to this gender reversal approach.  

Girlfight was backed by acclaimed American indie film-maker John Sayles (Kusama previously worked as his assistant director). It became Sundance sensation at the year of its release, winning Grand Jury Prize and Best Director Award. The then 22 year old Michelle Rodriguez gained immense praise and it led to her to enjoy big studio breaks. Despite the impressive directorial debut, Karyn Kusama’s career didn’t raise much until last year’s indie horror hit The Invitation (in the meantime, she directed couple of trashy movies: Aeon Flux & Jennifer’s body). Kusama opens Girlfight with a wonderful close-up shot of 17 year old misfit Diana Guzman. The fury that shoots up from her eyes confirms the girl’s tendency to involve in brawls, in & outside the school premises. Diana lives with her younger brother Tiny Guzman & tough alcoholic father in the impoverished, inner-city projects. Diana who is on the brink of expulsion hates the authoritarian set-up in home as well as school. Her mother had died few years before and the rebellious spirit is what helps her to counter the existential void.

She desires to go into the world, unlike many inner-city teenagers, who before reaching the age to vote either succumb themselves to drugs or gangs. Diana walks into a rough Brooklyn gym club, where her brother and other aspiring male boxers get trained. She wants to become an amateur boxer. The veteran trainer Hector (Jaime Tirelli) and other patrons of the club says it’s not right to train a female to box. But the raw energy and attitude of Diana Guzman softens Hector’s stand. She hides her training from abusive father, who has actually driven the mother to early grave. The underdog from working class neighborhood does her best to channel her raw power to score precise blows inside the ring. Off the ring, this new pursuit becomes the means for self-control. Diana soon meets her Prince named Adrian (Santiago Douglas), a sweet guy who trains in the featherweight division to go pro. The narrative later wades into unexpected & a bit unbelievable territory with a climactic bout between two forlorn youngsters.

Despite following the well-established patterns of boxing flicks, there’s a very warm appeal to it. Part of the reason is director Kusama’s effective portrayal of Diana and her gritty neighborhood. The white classrooms, broken-down gym club and high-rise apartment render authenticity to the proceedings. Moreover, the director eschews elaborate set-pieces, since it's the very unglamorous setting of female amateur boxing. She avoids powerfully delivered knock-outs. The bouts are deliberately visualized in a distanced manner. Unlike the usual flow in boxing movies, Diana uses the fighting skills to control the beast within. Boxing is her way of controlling anger. ‘Power is half the story’ says trainer Hector and much of the narrative is about gaining the other-half: Self-knowledge or self-control. Diana’s relationship with Adrian seems a bit schematic, but Kusama’s intention isn’t to just depict the journey of female amateur boxer. She uses their romantic relationship and the climactic showdown to comment on the sexual politics. The director could have done away with Adrian’s character and upheld the theme of female self-reliance. Interestingly, she makes Diana to fall for the guy. Subsequently, Diana refuses to be the trophy girlfriend of Adrian; she even fights him for the trophy. It’s brings different dynamism to the romance. In the ending, when the two lovers patch up their rivalries, the scenario becomes a parable of a man learning to co-exist with a female who simply won’t succumb to the whims of macho constructs.

The movie, of course belongs to Michelle Rodriguez. The gorgeous actress may possess little acting chops, but she instinctively plays the character. She is inexpressive, sullen, and too self-contained in the film’s opening minutes. But, gradually as she trains to toughen up her physical strength, the emotional vulnerability elegantly escapes through the hardened facial features. Director Kusama imbues a lot of sensuality, unheard of for a boxing picture. In one superb scene, Diana kisses Adrian for the first time. Rodriguez gracefully depicts the desire rising out of the ruggedness. She gives into his kiss, and then slowly pulls back, then gives in more, but never yielding to him fully. Her impregnable shell remains intact after exuding little amounts of tenderness. In another great scene, Rodriguez’s character hugs Adrian inside the ring, to tell ‘I love you’, and then backs out to take a swing at him. Rodriguez makes us overlook the highly implausible elements of the narrative and transcends the melodrama in the material. Although the film’s scope is limited compared to Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull or John Avildsen’s Rocky, Diana Guzman is a worthy character who deserves a place among the pantheon of cinematic boxers. 


Cold Fever [1995] – A Captivating Icelandic Deadpan Comedy

In the book ‘Cinema of Small Nations’ (edited by Mette Hjort), in the chapter analyzing Icelandic cinema (written by Bjorn Nordfjord), it is mentioned that ‘Iceland represents one of the world’s smallest national cinemas – one where the local and global meet face to face’. Although it’s called as the smallest (country’s population is currently around 331,000), the relative quality of Icelandic cinema is simply staggering.  Iceland cinema’s history mostly begins in the 1980s where productions financed and screened in Iceland designed to only appeal or address the Icelanders. It’s only with Fridrik Thor Fridriksson’s Children of Nature (1991) Iceland cinema gained international attention (the film was nominated for an Academy Award). The film tells the story of an elderly couple fleeing from their nursing home in Reykjavik (Iceland’s capital) to return for the final time to their home of youth. While the film possessed idiosyncratic Icelandic touches, it easily connected with global audiences due to its exploration of universal themes like death, nature, and life. Director Fridriksson used all the profit he gained from the film’s international distribution deals to establish his production company – Iceland Film Corporation. He bought some production equipment using that money and went to shape the glorious era of Icelandic cinema [the future of Iceland cinema marked as precarious after the major financial crisis in the country between 2008 and 2011. The government’s funds for cinema were increasingly reduced. Yet, Iceland continues to produce renowned films in the last five years – Volcano, Either Way, Of Horses and Men, Sparrow, Metalhead, Life in a Fishbowl, Rams to name a few] .

Fridrik Thor Fridriksson made his feature-film debut in 1987 with the drama White Whales. Prior to his debut, he made numerous documentaries as well as short experimental movies. For years, he ran a film society (in the late 1970s & 80s) and expanded its members to around 2,000. This was the time before VHS and when the attendance at the screening kept increasing, he used the money to buy a 16mm camera. After the renowned success of Children of Nature, Fridriksson continued his transnational narrative style in Movie Days (1994), which is set during Cold War days and examined the impact of it on the domestic community. Fridriksson’s fourth feature film Cold Fever ('A koldum, klaka', 1995) not only had a transnational narrative, but also a multinational cast and production team. Cold Fever tells the tale of young Tokyo business executive Atsushi Hirata (Masatoshi Nagase) traveling to the remote corner of Iceland in order to perform rituals for his deceased parents (who died there in an accident). The dead-pan humor plus the surrealistic and endearingly humanistic touches reminds us of the works of Jim Jarmusch and Coen Brothers. In fact, Mr. Fridriksson in his 2014 interview to critic Michael Glover Smith (in White City Cinema), confides the interesting set of events that initiated the making of the movie.

Jim Jarmusch was invited for the screening of his brilliant anecdotal comedy Mystery Train (1989) at Reykjavik Film Festival. Producer Jim Stark made the visit on Jarmusch’s behalf. When Fridriksson and Mr. Stark had an amiable conversation, there were talks of collaborating on a film. Stark asked the director to include Japanese actor Masatoshi Nagase in his new story ideas. Later, Fridriksson traveled to Japan to get a grip on his story when he came across the news about the death of two Japanese scientists in Iceland (by drowning). Japanese people traveled to Iceland to perform the due rituals and hence Fridriksson was bestowed with a narrative idea (Jim Stark also co-wrote the script for Cold Fever). Director Fridriksson states that he has deep love for Japanese cinema, so much that he used the chance to cast maverick Japanese film-maker Seijun Suzuki in a cameo role (to play the protagonist's grandfather in a scene).

The film opens in Tokyo, following the monotonous life of Hirata, and scrutinizes the confined spaces around him. He shrugs off his grandfather’s advice to perform ceremonies at the site of his parents’ death. Like his father, Hirata too isn’t very religious. Furthermore, he dislikes cold temperature and is all set to take a golfing holiday trip to the warm Miami. But, he feels certain guilt over the death of his parents. He wasn’t so close with them and feels he should at least do his duty now. Soon, Hirata is en-route to Iceland. On the plane, a foreign woman asks Hirata in English, ‘Is this your first visit to Iceland?’ She further adds ‘You are going to love it. Everybody does’ as if it’s also addressed to the movie-lovers who haven’t much explored the cinematic territory of Iceland. The shot is cut to a huge snow-covered mountain range which stands as the exact opposite to the earlier cramped spaces of glitzy Tokyo. The shot makes one more thing clear: that Hirata has chosen one of the worst times to visit Iceland – in the middle of winter with its non-stop snow-storms. 

Cold Fever has one long running gag. It’s the joke of watching Hirata’s bewildered expressions upon confronting the poker-faced foreign tourists and eccentric natives. Similar to all the great culture-clashing road-movies, Cold Fever is memorable for its oddball characters. And only a very few of them are gimmicky interludes. The majority of vignettes are laced with humanistic touches. The movie also has a mystical edge to it that confirms to the unique Icelandic qualities or themes. The array of strange individuals Hirata meet includes: a foreign woman who collects photographs of funerals; a cab-driver who takes a break from work to perform his role in Nativity scene; and a strange girl whose screams shatter tall icebergs; and a very hospitable local guy who nudges Hirata to find inner peace in the world’s most remote and coldest  location. The Japanese guy drinks the stinging national beverage Black Death, hears blaring songs of Icelandic rock n roll, tastes ram’s testicles and sheep’s head, rarely allowing his frustration or delectation to raise above the surface of his face.

Cold Fever is both satisfying as mediation on life & death, and as a fine travelogue, capturing the striking different personalities amidst miles of stillness. The pleasure in the narrative is witnessing the hybrid account of the Icelandic’ness’. When Hirata is caught in the cruel weather or fails to eradicate his disorientation caused by interactions with locals, we get something different from touristic impressions. But later as he merges with the natural environment, he is more able to understand the basic good-hearted nature of the natives. The cultural or national barriers blurs as Hirata binds with the Icelander through the common thread of humanity. Director Fridriksson portrays nature in the same way as the people – both cruel and unbelievably poignant. The narrative trajectory not only hinges on showcasing the land and people’s peculiarities, but also weaves a holistic understanding of Icelandic existence. The multinational movie cast is terrific. Nagase is perfect as the inexpressive pilgrim (in Mystery Train he went to Memphis obsessed with American 50s and in recent Paterson he made a journey to visit the land of poet William Carlos Williams). The only vignette which didn’t work for me was Lily Taylor and Fisher Stevens’ cameo as a kooky American couple.   



Cold Fever (85 minutes) is an immensely enjoyable Icelandic road movie blessed with wealth of ethereal imagery. It’s a must watch for those who love the cool indie comedies of Jim Jarmusch and can also serve as a fine introductory point to the quiet young yet intriguing cinema of Iceland.