Salma Hayek’s performance in “Beatriz at Dinner” is so painfully real that it is, in the parlance of our time, triggering. As a holistic healer so sensitive to the suffering of the world around her that she can hardly bear it, many people overwhelmed by similar feelings might identify with the tortured Beatriz to an unpleasant degree. Hayek’s performance is very affecting, but there is not enough else in this film to make it truly successful as a story; it is more of a character study.
But what a moving and memorable character study it is. Hayek’s makeup-free face, framed in unflattering bangs, is seen in frequent close-ups, and her glamorous figure is almost successfully hidden in boxy clothing. From the minute she opens her eyes in the morning, Beatriz seems to be fighting a losing battle with sadness, hers and others’. She keeps a baby goat in a pen, and she leaps from bed to embrace it and try to keep it quiet. Who is this poor woman clinging for dear life to a goat in her bedroom?
She is a woman with a sad past who cares about helping and healing others, to her own detriment. She works at an alternative cancer treatment center, and after a long day there drives out to see a private client (Connie Britton). Cathy, we learn, does admire Beatriz, and seems to genuinely care about her. I found the process of navigating the depths of her sincerity, and the limits of her friendship with Beatriz, one of the film’s most intriguing elements, especially Beatriz’s past work with Cathy’s young daughter.
In the rarefied air of the California mansion, the plaintively sincere Beatriz confesses to Cathy that her neighbor has murdered one of her goats, because it was bleating too much, and this is the saddest and most pitiful tale you will ever hear. The depth of her compassion for the little animal really informs her character, and every time Beatriz reacts to others throughout the film, her face takes you back to that poor goat.
When Beatriz’s car won’t start, Cathy invites her to stay for dinner, even though it is a very important dinner with her husband’s work associates, and Cathy exhibits a blithe denial of the vast gulf between Beatriz and the rest of the guests that she does very little to assuage as the evening continues. Her husband suggests Beatriz eat dinner alone in the TV room, and, while that seems unkind at first, Cathy’s superficial inclusion of a woman she subsequently ignores ends up being much worse.
Considering that the dinner is being held to celebrate a young lawyer (Jay Duplass), who successfully bypassed environmental concerns to get permits to build a big mall, along with an incredibly sinister developer played by John Lithgow, Beatriz the vegetarian does not mingle successfully. When Lithgow very rudely questions her about her legal immigration status in the United States, we learn that she came to this country after an incredibly sinister developer bypassed environmental concerns to build a big hotel in her village. It’s awkward.
Squinting at Lithgow, she repeats the phrase, “I know you,” and while we wonder if he is indeed to same villainous mogul who destroyed her home, it doesn’t really matter. She is attuned to him as if she has seen a ghost. Her tragic sensitivity to the suffering of others has gutted her, and she is equally sensitive to the presence of evil.
The story of Beatriz is a bit too focused to function dramatically as a great film, but the character of Beatriz will haunt you.
“Beatriz at Dinner” is currently available to rent.