Deep Adaptation in Popular Media: Beatriz, Melodrama, and Capitalism
Most of the essays I’ll be writing for this blog will critique a current film or TV show in terms of the story they tell and relevant historical realities that shape the possibilities for deep adaptation. For this essay, though, I will examine a 2017 film, Beatriz at Dinner, starring Salma Hayek and John Lithgow. Last I looked, the movie is still available for viewing on Tubi TV for free, if you’d like to watch it.
In brief, Beatriz tells a melodramatic story about nature in the context of capitalism and imperialism but finds it cannot face up to the implications of the injustices it uncovers. It’s not just that Hollywood takes some baby steps toward recognizing a few of the evils in the world caused by rich Americans and then ignores them; many US films do that. Rather, Beatriz gives us a clear hero and villain, painted in bold strokes, but turns to virtue-signaling fantasies without resolving the conflict between them. How and why the film slips the yoke of its melodramatic expectations is what interests me about Beatriz at Dinner.
The moviebegins as a thinly disguised anti-Trump allegory about an unlikely confrontation between a sympathetic Mexican-born masseuse-nurse (Hayek) and a rapacious international real estate developer (Lithgow). They meet when Hayek/Beatriz, stranded at a client’s house after her car breaks down, is invited to dinner by the wife of a wealthy businessman after their massage session. Her husband is celebrating a corrupt deal that he and others have arranged with Lithgow/Doug Strutt and the predators soon arrive for dinner with their wives at the lavish beach home where Beatriz is temporarily marooned.
The inclusion of Hayek/Beatriz at the table with these Anglo billionaires, already awkward, is made more difficult when Beatriz recognizes Strutt and begins to question him about a past hotel deal in Mexico that displaced her family and killed many local villagers. Strutt brushes her accusations aside and gleefully recounts the down-and-dirty strategies that have made him a winner, topping his braggadocio with a photo that shows him posed next to a bloody rhinoceros he shot in Africa. With the guests still cooing in praise of the killer, Beatriz blurts out, “Are you for real? This is disgusting.” The host intervenes, calls a tow truck for her car, and suggests that Beatriz might be happier resting in a nearby child’s bedroom until the truck arrives.
At this point in what still appears to be a lightly satirical, Buñuel-like film of social misperceptions, I was wondering how the story could ever arrive at an acceptable Hollywood ending. What script writing sleight-of-hand might move this conflict between an Earth Mother and Macho Man toward peace and allow everyone to go home acknowledging that there is “more work to be done” on the problem of ecological damage vs. economic development? But instead of resolving in a tentative treaty, the movie got much darker and dove into what I initially took to be a gothic ending. Before leaving with the tow-truck driver and her car, Beatriz fantasizes stabbing Strutt in the neck and we watch the wish fulfillment play out as he bleeds to death and the guests scream in horror. Then, in what seems like a return to real life, Beatriz tells the driver of the tow truck to stop on the side of the road soon after they leave the house. Hayek/Beatriz steps out of the cab of the truck, climbs down some rocks to the ocean, walks into the waves, and drowns herself. About a minute later, the film ends.
When I first saw this ending, I was outraged. Why should she kill herself? She’s a strong woman throughout the flick, a nurse and healer; there’s nothing suicidal about her! And what a terrible message this sends about the need to stand up and fight for a livable planet! Then I looked again at the ending and realized that the last minute of the picture, coupled with the beginning of the film, held the key. The movie begins with an establishing shot of Beatriz paddling a boat along a coast overgrown with sinuous mangrove trees. She is looking for a lost white goat, which we see briefly on the shore. Next, Beatriz awakens in her bedroom, and we soon learn that this house pet and provider of milk has been murdered by an angry neighbor and Beatriz is still mourning her loss.
At the end of the film, the camera returns us to the same shoreline, and we watch Beatriz continuing her search. In fact, after submerging us in the ocean surf of her apparent suicide, the camera emerges from this angry sea into the placid mangrove lagoon once again. In effect, Mike White’s screenplay for Beatriz frames the entire narrative of the film as a dream. Like Alice in her Wonderland, Beatriz has tumbled down a rabbit-hole nightmare and her experiences at the dinner are a kind of Mad Hatter’s tea party. In reality, she never awakened at all. While this explanation makes sense of the story, the ending is still a cop out. Despite the frame of the plot, it makes no ethical sense to reduce Strutt’s deadly ecological rampage and Beatriz’s righteous revenge to something like Lewis Carroll’s angry pack of playing cards.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to see what else White and director Miguel Artetor, who have worked together successfully before, might have done to bring the conflict between empathic concern for Earth’s creatures and rapacious narcissism and destruction to an end that would satisfy conventional Hollywood expectations. Although the movie won mostly favorable reviews, several critics noted the structural-ethical problems of the script. In his review, NY Times film critic A.O. Scott, however, admitted he had no idea what a credible conclusion to the flick might look like: “Beatriz at Dinner is about unresolvable contradictions,” he said, “which may mean its failures are less specific than systemic.” Consequently, Scott refused to blame the screenwriting or directing. “I blame capitalism,” he wrote. “I blame America” (NYTimes, 6/8/2017).
I agree with Scott. Historically, Hollywood has had an ambivalent attitude about capitalistic success, American style. This response dates at least from Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, a 1924 silent flick, when audiences delighted both in hating the villain for his sins and envying him his enjoyment of wealth and status. Such ambivalence has continued to play out in two recent “Wall Street” movies, the first featuring Michael Douglas’s Gordon “Greed-is-good” Gekko (1987) and the second Leonardo DiCaprio’s enthusiastic sleaze bag, Jordan Belfort, in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013). The second flick at least cut the smug moralizing of the first and allowed us both to enjoy and groan under DiCaprio’s exuberant wallowing. Lithgow’s Strutt captures more of the supercilious cynicism of Douglas/Gekko than the infectious fun of DiCaprio/Belfort, but both are present in his complex characterization. These Wall Street movies, however, primarily manipulated audience attitudes toward success; neither penetrated the structural economic inequalities built into the system.
By exposing the ugly reality of capitalism’s rape of native peoples in the name of profit, Beatriz begins to lay bare those structural realities. But the film stops short, relying instead on its audience simply to damn and dismiss its villain, rather than punishing him in the film’s action. Lithgow/Strutt certainly deserves poetic justice. Ever the Biblical Devil, he even attempts to seduce our heroine with worldly cynicism. “The world is dying. You should accept it and enjoy yourself,” he tells Beatriz, just before the fantasy murder.
The environmental take on climate chaos helps to explain why White may have reverted to melodramatic wish fulfillment for his screenplay. Environmentalists often pit villainous groups of humans against natural (and therefore “innocent”) animals – drivers of gas guzzlers against polar bears, for example. And there is certainly ethical justification (along with some fund-raising savvy) for framing such conflicts in the melodramatic terms of human corruption vs natural innocence. Besides, there’s an entire pastoral tradition here, long preceding human hunters vs. Bambi’s mother, that associates sylphs, fawns, and shepherds watching their flocks by night with positive classical and Biblical images. The notion of escaping to the countryside and going back to nature has probably been a human desire since the citizens of Ur sought relief from the dust, noise, and social problems of city life. Beatriz in her lagoon, like Thoreau at Waldon Pond, has a long and storied history.
Problem is, we can’t go home again with Beatriz to her peaceful, natural lagoon. We haven’t been able to do that for at least fifty years now. As Jason W. Moore notes in his masterful Capitalism in the Web of Life (2015), world capitalism, by expanding economic exploitation and appropriation, has transformed nature’s bounty into what Moore calls “Cheap Nature” – cheap food, cheap labor-power, cheap energy and raw materials – ready to feed the maw of Capitalism to create profits. Capitalist “progress” and its ally, imperialist expansion, have been the driving forces of European and American histories since the sixteenth century and both dynamic webs of entanglement, now in many international guises, ring the globe.
Beatriz is just as entangled as most of the rest of us. It’s clear from the film that she already participates as a distributor and provider of “natural” products and services in Southern California, supplying rich ladies with massages, health medicines, and food choices. In her own small way, she, like those of us who have ever ordered anything from Amazon, has helped capitalism and imperialism to monetize Mother Nature. Regarding Beatriz and her lagoon, a little exploration would likely reveal that some corporation has already converted that lovely body of water in which our Earth Mother dreams of finding her goat into Cheap Nature. Lagoon, Inc may already be profiting from the sun and sea, from the mangroves, the fish, and much of the other flora and fauna. Perhaps it’s already running boat tours around the placid coastal pond. If Beatriz isn’t working for this corporation as cheap labor-power, she soon will be. These compromises with the mundane forces of history radically undercut the pattern and ethical promise of the film’s melodramatic expectations. Could our heroine (or the film’s writer and director) justify killing the villain and returning to her innocent, watery Eden?
Toward the end of the film, the dinner guests gather to metaphorically set fire to America. In brief scenes intercut with shots leading to Beatriz’s apparent suicide in the ocean – episodes that juxtapose beauty with mounting horror – the guests launch sky lanterns from the backyard. These are made of paper wrapped over parachute-like balsawood frames constructed to carry a lit candle aloft through its generation of hot air. A guest remarks that one of these lanterns could set a nearby canyon “on fire” and another volunteers to get them all off in court when it does. (Such sky lanterns have indeed caused fires and are now illegal in much of tinderbox California.) Strutt joins the others near the swimming pool to launch his own lantern as the others applaud. While watching this murderous indifference to life, I thought of Strutt’s advice about enjoying yourself while the world dies. Unfortunately, there is precious little in this film – or in the normal operations of American capitalism, for that matter – to prevent the ongoing slaughter of trees, wildlife, and people.
Bruce McConachie is a retired professor of popular dramatic entertainment. His latest book, Drama, Politics and Evolution (2021) looks at the interplay of popular films and politics to examine the gradual disintegration of social cohesion in the US after 1965.