Spit, Sweat, and Screaming Fits… and that’s Just the First Minute of THE COFFEE TABLE

The Coffee Table begins with spit, sweat, and screaming fits. I don’t mean the opening scene of a birth, I mean the following scene where new parents María (Estefanía de los Santos) and Jesús (David Pareja) have an increasingly heated argument in the presence of a furniture salesman. The couple are buying a new coffee table. Jesús wants to buy one of the ugliest coffee tables I have ever seen. Two nude women, flocked with fake gold, sculpted and angular act as the legs, their backs arched, the weight of the “unbreakable” glass as declared by the oily salesman.

This short and almost unbearably uncomfortable scene tells you all you need to know about who María and Jesús are and where their lives and relationship are at this exact moment: tired. Jesús didn’t want a baby yet; María had been waiting for one. María makes most of the decisions, including the baby’s name, Cayetano after her grandfather. Jesús hates the name. It is the same name as the salesman. The new parents are fragile. Jesús feels emasculated by a lack of agency in the relationship, María is resentful of his reluctance to be a parent. María leaves. Jesús buys the table.

From this introduction the oppressive and fraught atmosphere doesn’t relent, it only intensifies. The couple returns home, having recently moved into the apartment of Jesús’ recently deceased grandmother. A mother and daughter, neighbors from the building run into them. The teenage daughter Ruth is having boy trouble and is sulking. She stands on the staircase above her mother, scowling down at the adults and exasperatingly exclaiming that “he loves her, he just won’t admit it.”

After María goes inside and Ruth’s mother continues on her way, Ruth stops to talk with Jesús. It turns out that he is the boy she is sulking over. Ruth insists that there is something between them even though she is 13 and he is married with a new son. From her side of things, he has been sending her love poems and they kissed in the elevator. From his side, she asked him for help on a school project about love poems and he had to stop her from trying to kiss him in the elevator. She threatens him that she will show her mother the love poems he sent her if he doesn’t tell María about their affair. Baffled and exasperated, Jesús closes the door on her and her threats and moves the flatpack table into the living room to be assembled while the fight between María and him continues.

What struck me while watching The Coffee Table was the realism on display. It has the feel of an early Mike Leigh film and especially made me think of Life is Sweet which focuses on the dynamics and minutiae of the life of a London Family. Granted, as The Coffee Table unfolds there is more darkness, guilt, and suffering on display but the interactions between characters and performances convey a great deal more authenticity than many of the Hollywood offerings.

With Jesús’ brother and his new girlfriend coming over to meet the new baby, María leaves Jesús at home with Cayetano to go get groceries and to have a break. This is the major turning point of the film. From almost the second she leaves the apartment the film becomes a tense and psychologically excruciating exercise in guilt. The hideous coffee table remains the centerpiece, the instigator, and the splintered glass in the wound throughout the 90-minute runtime.

The unbreakable glass of the hideous table soon shatters, and with it shatters Jesús’ world. The broken glass and Jesús’ broken psyche now exist in tandem as he struggles with an unthinkable consequence of his gaudy purchase. Amongst the blood and glass fragments, Jesús now has to reckon with a terrible secret that has not only shattered his life but threatens to shatter María when she finds out.

When María returns, Cayetano has been put to bed and Jesús has cleaned up the mess from the table as best he can. His wounds are bandaged, the glass is swept up, and María is unendingly amused that the unbreakable glass has smashed immediately. She is delighted by this turn of events, besieged by uncontrollable laughter as the couple prepares the meal for their visiting family. Meanwhile, Jesús is quiet, pale, sweating profusely. He is cowed by shame and his horrific secret.

Director Caye Casas also co-wrote the film with Cristina Borobia and the pair have crafted a torturous portrayal of secrets and lies. It is a crushing experience. Emotionally devastating, dark, and real. The scene where María and Jesús sit down to eat with his brother Carlos (Josep María Riera) and his girlfriend Cris (Claudia Riera) is a spiraling and fraught exercise in the oppressive weight of guilt. The entirety of the film is heavy and thick. It is hard to breathe as the runtime ticks down. It is an anxiety attack of a film, with a narrative and performances that make you feel like you are barely keeping your head above water until the horrific conclusion when you and everyone on screen finally slip beneath the waves.

Emma Oakman
British Scream Queen / Canadian Gorehound
Emma is a 30-something-year-old British freelance writer in the wastelands of Canada. She studied film at university and is a lifelong horror fan. She is 8,674th in line for the throne.
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