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{Movie Review} The Dinner Party, It’s Complicated

*Content Warning: Sexual abuse of a child*

Two men stand in a cavernous yet homey kitchen. One is in shirtsleeves and an apron, deftly preparing a decadent meal. The other wears an enviable brocade blazer, and frets over the lack of a salad course. As the film goes on, I consider the subtle power shifts between two characters. I notice the potential implications of their dynamic, as well as those of the other characters. I enjoy the crisp foley sounds, refreshingly practical gore effects, and slight Midsommar-ness of it all–then, I am slapped with what seems to be a bold and unabashed reference to the virulently anti-Semitic myth of blood libel. As I am attempting to re-orient myself, I am treated to an unexpectedly aware scene involving a police officer, a white woman, and a Black man. The film rolls on, and in the relative lull of a cannibalistic pool fight, I start to wonder if I’m overreacting.

Am I missing some great artistry, or is this film simply offensive? Is the film hypersexualizing its Black characters, especially Agatha (Kamille McCuin) (and in doing so, playing into damaging stereotypes?) or am I doing so by reading it that way?  And who is more ignorant about potentially offensive religious imagery–me, or writer-director-actor Miles Doleac and his Ph.D. dissertation on Pope Gregory I? 

The Dinner Party gave me whiplash. I’ll start from the beginning.

If I were invited to the opulent and secluded home of a wealthy stranger, and commanded to leave my phone behind and tell no one of my whereabouts, I’d be suspicious. My suspicion would give me something in common with Bluebeard’s Wife, a character from the French folktale Bluebeard, who is wary of her dangerous new husband and his castle home, and whose story is referenced heavily in the plot and themes of The Dinner Party.

My suspicion would give me nothing in common with hopeful playwright Jeff (Mike Mayhall), who pulls up outside the mansion of glamorous couple Carmine (Bill Sage) and Sebastian (Sawandi Wilson) with his much younger wife Haley (Alli Hart), and seems to think nothing of the fact that they have been ordered to tell their friends that they are on vacation to attend a “secret dinner party” with “the proverbial cream of the crop.” 

Haley does seem uncomfortable–but Jeff tells her to get a grip on her emotions, so as not to spoil his networking opportunity. It quickly becomes clear that Haley is “unstable,” and we will later discover that she has a history of trauma, abuse, mental illness, and being gaslit by creepy men (a tried-and-true tradition of horror). “You should feel sunny, happy, excited,” Jeff informs her. When she promises to try, he gives her a pat on the thigh and rewards her with a stomach-churning, “Good girl.”

The power dynamic shifts when Sebastian takes his leave from worrying over salad, and greets them at the door: “I recommend that you peasants remove yourselves from this doorstep before I call the police, or worse,” he tells them. “Now both of you can fuck off.” For a brief and glorious moment, we are treated to the visual of a Black, gay man in a gilded blazer, literally slamming a door in the face of traditional privilege. Savor it–Sawandi Wilson’s playful performance is a consistent bright spot in increasing darkness, and you’ll still need your strength for what comes later. In the foyer, he stands in front of the door, as though to drive home the point that they’re now at his mercy. “Good boy,” he says, after coercing Jeff into kissing his royally outstretched hand. 

Courtesy of Artist Vodka Studios

And Jeff is a good boy. We are not interested in him–and Mayhall plays him as though he knows this, though the jury is out on whether to consider that self-awareness or phoning it in. Jeff serves to encapsulate (with a heavy hand) everything that’s horrible about privileged, social-climbing men who manipulate and mistreat women to feel good about themselves. Sadie (Lindsay Anne Williams), a flower-adorned sorceress of sorts with two inches more armpit hair than Jeff knows how to handle and a Garden of Eden-era grudge against the patriarchy, gets ample opportunity to verbally knock Jeff around for his tacky hubris and misogyny. Then she drinks his blood, and he’s served with a nice chianti. 

This brings us to one of the true reasons for this Donner–I mean, dinner party: cannibalism. As Carmine explains to Haley in a disarming Southern drawl, this event has been organized to help each of the guests fulfill a taboo desire. The other guests’ vices grow increasingly murky as the film goes on, but seem to include necrophilia, herbology, piano, tarot, racially-charged moments of ambiguous meaning, anti-Semitism, police corruption, gratuitous violence against women, and lengthy monologues that detail the plots of various operas. 

The first guest to have their way with Haley is Agatha, a prominent novelist who explains that her desire for women is surpassed only by her desire for the dead. She ties Haley to a chair and pours wine down her throat before riding Jeff’s decapitated body. 

McCuin gives a fun and freaky performance (especially considering how little she has to work with), but the resulting spectacle is ultimately one of gratuitous and disturbing sexuality, thinly propped up by a hollow backstory. Agatha delivers a monologue detailing how she developed her taboo sexuality after her undertaker father caught her kissing another girl, and forced her to have sex with a corpse in order to punish her for her “unnatural desires.” This sordid tale is ostensibly an attempt at reinforcing the film’s theme of fatherly sexual abuse masquerading as love (something Haley experienced at the hands of her stepfather), and it also seems like it might be a form of corrective rape. But The Dinner Party devotes so little time and effort to Agatha and her story, that both seem played for cheap shock value, despite the serious topics being raised.

Which is also true of a scene in which Sadie kneels before a shrine to worship and sip from a chalice of blood, while above her hang scrolls written in what appears to be Hebrew. Is this dangerously careless, or knowingly offensive? The ending twist of Sadie’s true identity as Original Woman Eve wasn’t necessarily predictable, but it also wasn’t surprising. Throughout the film, Sadie reads tarot cards, mixes potions, drinks blood, and talks back to men–among other things that have historically gotten women the title of “witch.” When she reveals herself to Haley, she describes how she was “forced into existence in order to breed with a mound of mud and shit…a servant to maker and man.” She tells Haley that God knows she is suffering, in the same way that Sadie herself once did. These references to the generational trauma of womanhood, an original sin in its own right, are intriguing.

But up until this point, Sadie’s “magic” is non-specific. By including Hebrew letters, the film makes a clear implication of Judaism, which is then confirmed when we learn Sadie’s identity as part of the Jewish and Christian creation story. If the objective was to stay on-theme with Sadie’s eventual reveal as Eve of Eden, the writing could have been in Greek or Latin. Instead, the film seems to be alluding to blood libel, by portraying a red-headed woman (red hair is another trait associated with Jewish heritage) slaughtering people and drinking their blood as part of a ceremony of sorts, populated by “elites” hoping to further their power. If this is a mistake, it’s ham-fisted and insensitive in the extreme. If it was a deliberate implication, this movie has a lot to answer for. 

Courtesy of Artist Vodka Studios

Which brings me to the encounter with police officer Brooks (Ritchie Montgomery). At one point in the film, Haley struggles free. Barefoot and soaked in blood, she careens into a cop. Her relief is palpable as she hysterically describes the atrocities she has suffered. The more she says, though, the less seriously Brooks takes her. He even begins to chuckle.

Soon Sebastian appears behind Haley, calm and collected beyond belief, and begins to explain to Brooks that Haley is actually his mentally unstable sister-in-law. “Sir,” says Brooks, cutting Sebastian off, “I’m not addressing you. If I want information from you I’ll ask you. Right now, I’m asking her.” 

The police officer laughs at what Hailey describes, but insists to Sebastian that she’s clearly experienced something traumatic (and he seems suspicious that it has to do with Sebastian). Sebastian is polite to a fault, and is still spoken to with rough disdain by the cop. We know from events past and present that white men, in particular police officers, will take any opportunity to explode with violence toward Black men under the guise of “defending” a white woman’s honor. Brooks doesn’t get violent, but the mindset is clear.

Brooks’ inability to respect either Haley, a screaming white woman covered in blood, or Sebastian, an impeccably dressed Black man who is cut off several times despite his unflappable demeanor, means they simply cancel each other out. “This is my regular patrol,” says the officer, “and I’ve never known Mr. Braun [Carmine] to cause any trouble.” He doesn’t respect either of them enough to listen to them, and both are over-shadowed by the mere specter of the wealthy white male doctor. Of course, it turns out later that Brooks was simply in the pocket of this evil eating club the entire time–an example of the law bending to the will of wealth.

Courtesy of Artist Vodka Studios

Decapitating Jeff early on is one of the things that The Dinner Party does right. Other positives include the cinematography–each frame drips with influence and privilege masquerading as genius; the production design–the intimidating home is all dark wood and ominous art, lit with dim warmth that leaves plenty of space for shadows; a gorgeous montage mid-way that cuts between Sebastian’s increasingly frenetic piano-playing and Carmine’s unsettling meal prep; and the soundtrack, which is an enchanting mix of opera and synthwave that at some points carries the film. But in many ways the negatives overshadow the rest.

Maybe none of this is a big deal. Considering the life-and-death incarnations of racism and prejudice that are currently center-stage, quibbles like this can seem inane, distracting. But at the same time, it’s important to remember that the representation we see in movies and TV–including horror movies like The Dinner Party, which can seem far removed from serious social issues from a privileged perspective–shapes our reality. 

Because the central plot of The Dinner Party revolves around Haley’s journey away from psychological oppression and self-doubt, it feels apropos to say that I feel a bit gaslit by the film itself. It’s certainly worth noting that if I were more educated, or if I were a member of the groups I fear The Dinner Party defames, I would have a clearer picture. It also feels worth noting, however, that the dynamic that has me second-guessing my instinct that something is off with this movie isn’t too different from what keeps Haley compliant for the first half of the film. I feel an impulse to defer to the “artistic authority” behind the story, who must know more than I do. I feel compelled to assume that I must be wrong, cowed by Doleac’s experience, and my inability to fit a degree and/or lifetime’s worth of understanding into a week-and-a-half of internet deep dives.

Maybe the next step for me is an ascension to sapphic, blood-drinking deity (after all, it works for Haley). Or perhaps the next step for me, and all of us, is to question the assumed authority of “authorial intent,” in particular when it comes from someone in a position of privilege. One mission this movie can say it accomplished? The Dinner Party certainly has me suspicious of “the proverbial cream of the crop”–and the team behind it is next in line.

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