Since Luis Buñuel redefined the table-scape with The Exterminating Angel (1962), the dinner party has been a motif in cinema that deliciously troubles bourgeois reality. Miles Dolec’s The Dinner Party offers a dish-to-pass to this tradition, but the ingredients are richer than the result.
A film that mocks its central characters for bringing a $12 bottle of wine runs the risk of becoming the $12 bottle of wine. The film is well-shot and well-intentioned, but once we uncork and get into it, we find that it doesn’t have strong legs to stand on and its notes ring somewhat tone deaf.
The film takes place over the course of an evening as playwright Jeff (Mike Mayhall) and his demure and troubled wife Haley (Alli Hart) join a reclusive group of eccentrics (Bill Sage, Lindsay Anne Williams, Sawandi Wilson, Kamille McCuin, and Dolec himself) for dinner. The group has offered to produce his latest work, but shortly after arriving, it becomes obvious they have other plans. As Haley and the evening come apart at the seams, we are plunged into a dark world of blood, ritual, and lore.
Cinematographer Michael Williams has shot a beautiful film. Everything looks elegant and captures the candlelit ambiance needed for this kind of story. He brilliantly shoots Julie Toche’s twisted production design, giving us some moments that look like a demented Dutch Master still life. As folkloric elements creep out from peripheries and the violence escalates, Williams and Toche find sumptuous ways to keep our eyes hungry for more.
Hart is an incredible lead. We can see her big doe eyes notice everything. Dolec and co-writer Michael Donovan Horn have given Haley a deeply upsetting history with murder and sexual abuse that continues to haunt her, and Hart does her utmost to make her human and believable. When Haley’s moment comes, it’s a jolt of satisfying excitement back into a picture that loses flavor between the first and second courses.
Dolec also makes interesting choices in how he composites the lore of The Dinner Party. He brings an eerie, earthy, Tumblr-ready aesthetics inside a grand mansion which is beautiful to look at. He bricolages the right elements from new and ancient religious movements to make a (theoretically) unsettled world. Dolec and Horn even manages to invoke an ancient character from mythology that I think is perfect for the feminist critique they are haphazardly attempting to signal.
This is one dinner party after which you’d get drive-thru on the way home.
The film feels as if it’s trying to distill Jordan Peele with Ari Aster to critique the white upper classes, which is a good idea and you can see there’s an effective premise at work. But ultimately the script isn’t strong enough to support the depth of flavor that makes its source materials so rewarding. Dolec and Horn have written the mysterious group at the center as Wildean aesthetes, but there is no delightful wit. These characters are not invitingly repulsive. At best, the characters feel as wooden and ornate as the dining table; at worst they read as tone-deaf (if not harmful) representations of queer people.
I’m all for sex, violence, folklore, and a good meal. Save me a seat! But what makes these so exciting to combine on film is the human and primal natures they reflect in us. Expressed in the right ways, it can be a seared and appetizing critique. Without human or alluring inhuman characters, films like The Dinner Party don’t deliver on the meal they promise and we are left unsatisfied. This is one dinner party after which you’d get drive-thru on the way home.
The Dinner Party is coming to digital and DVD June 9th.