Only read this review if you want to know what happens. There is no other way to describe the movie without just telling you what it is. Here goes: A man buys a coffee table against the wishes of his wife. First time alone with his newborn baby, he’s setting up the table, and it breaks and slices off his baby’s head. Oops!
The rest of The Coffee Table goes like this: our lead, so-named Jesus (David Pareja) must hide what has happened from his wife Maria (Estefanía de los Santos). There’s a big problem as Jesus’ brother and his wife are coming to dinner. The film does not indicate that it’s going down this devastating path of child loss until it does it. So, beware if that is a very reasonable sensitivity for you.
The movie bottles up the tension as it goes. We spend a lot of time, often too long, inside of shots and spaces that have already established what the movie wants us to know and feel. What it does with surprising acuity is to keep the tension going even when the individual pieces are too long. The whole way through, we’re reminded of the deftly clever way that Alfred Hitchcock presented Rope (1948), as a birthday deathbed scenario, where friends of the recently deceased gather around and have a party in his honor, unbeknownst to them that his corpse is in the table at the center of the room.
That’s how it goes with Jesus and his baby, too. The head comes clean off and rolls under a chair. The apartment is spotted with blood and while he moves the body to the other room, saying he’s put him down for a nap, he’s left the decapitated head inside the living room. There is a cleverness to the dark humor behind The Coffee Table, a movie that does quite a bit with a narrow premise.
What’s great about Jesus’ struggle to conceal the baby are the couple of other plotlines unfolding alongside these events. When putting together the table, Jesus is missing a screw and must call the furniture store owner. He’ll make a house call and come deliver it. Before that can happen, tragedy strikes. The shop owner has the same name as his newborn son and is deeply eager to become Jesus’ friend, impressed that as an act of self-will, he bought a tacky table that nobody could like. There’s also a young girl upstairs from their apartment. She passes Jesus in the hall and desperately wants him to confess his love to her. He demurs and tries to create boundaries but ultimately says, just come by later, and we’ll talk about it. Then there’s the scenario of the visit with the brother and his wife, where they plan to announce the news of their own pregnancy. Several fun and dicey situations add extra tension to the plotting.
The terrific thing about Caye Casas’ The Coffee Table is its concision. It plays well inside the boundaries the filmmaker establishes. Some shots overstay their welcome but the central tension always remains. As a black comedy, it’s really not too funny but the whole situation is so ridiculous, that you can understand how the film is approaching it. The only other barrier here is that once you know the plot, you’re prepared for the only surprise that is possible in the movie. It’s a good elevator pitch but gives everything away. Still, there’s plenty to recommend for this absurdist parenting nightmare from Spain. It’s simply not the kind of film you can openly recommend to everyone but if it’s for you, you know by now. How you react to the information about the child’s decapitation will likely also determine what you think about the movie.