The Coffee Table Goes Beyond Black Comedy to Deliver an Extended Panic Attack

There is black comedy, there is pitch-black comedy, and then there is Caye Casas’ The Coffee Table (La mesita del comedor) which is best described as Vantablack comedy. The kind of comedy that is so black it sucks you into a void so dark that you struggle to register what you’re seeing. Alfred Hitchcock famously said, “Suspense is when the spectator knows more than the characters in the movie,” and the maxim applies to The Coffee Table where only the audience and one character know the true nature of the horror destined to be uncovered.

New parents Jésus (David Pareja) and María (Estefanía de los Santos) stand in a furniture store where the pushy salesman Cayetano (Eduardo Antuña) guarantees them that the purchase of an overwhelmingly tacky coffee table will “Change their lives.” Homing in on some marital discord he addresses most of his sales pitch to Jésus who is struggling with being a father in middle age and feels María has made all his decisions for him. The salesman tells him the Swiss-designed, but Chinese made Rörret table features not only elegant European design, but also unbreakable glass. Buying the coffee table to repair his pride, Jésus has ushered in the worst day of his life.

Jésus is the kind of man who seems to have always been a bit of a push-over. María barks orders at him and he complies. She has no problem calling his brother Carlos (Josep Maria Riera) a paedo for dating an eighteen-year-old woman. María has guided almost everything in Jésus’ life; from the decision to have a child, then name him Cayetano (a name he loathes), to the colour of the curtains. For once in his life as a parent María is leaving him alone with Cayetano, or more precisely alone with Cayetano and the tacky coffee table and going out shopping for food and wine for lunch with Carlos and his new girlfriend Cristina (Claudia Riera).

Jésus is also the object of romantic fantasy for Ruth (Gala Flores) delusional thirteen-year-old girl. The child won’t take no for an answer and is ready to confront María with their “relationship” if Jésus refuses to admit that they are in love. Jésus doesn’t take the absurd situation seriously but on this particular day everything has repercussions he could not possibly have imagined.

The unbreakable glass of the coffee table does indeed break, and that shattering is the shattering of Jésus and María’s life. When she gets home and sees the blood all over the place she laughs like a banshee. “That’s karma. The glass breaking. That’s karma punishing you. Your fucking table is costing a lot. I’d give anything to have seen your face when it broke. Buying that crap table was worth it for this moment.” Only Jésus and the audience know just how much the coffee table has really cost.

The lunch with Carlos and his “No bad days” t-shirt wearing girlfriend is cinematic grotesquery at its finest. Jésus is sweating and distant which María attributes to the blood loss he suffered when he cut himself on the broken glass. Every moment is a pressure cooker where the audience is wondering when the penny is going to drop. Cristina reveals that she is pregnant and María speaks about how there is no love one can experience than the love for a child. Jésus demurs that he loves María most in the world. A conversation begins where the quartet begin to jokingly (or not) list the people they love most. If you’ve seen Casas’ Killing God, you’ll know he plays with the idea of choosing people for vicious effect.

Casas and co-writer Cristina Borobia want to make you laugh because laughing seems the only response to the horror of the situation. The weird salesman who turns up late with a missing screw for the coffee table who wants to “hang out” with Jésus. The ludicrous nature of the coffee table and Jésus dragging it up flights of stairs to their apartment. María meeting with an old friend, Ana (Itziar Castro) in the supermarket where they discuss how much they love their kids, but Ana also points out in front of her daughter that motherhood can take over your life, “Even if it’s taking the rubbish out at night alone, enjoy it.” Ruth and her yappy little dog. Sibling bickering over who owned a childhood toy in Cayetano’s nursery and Cristina pointing out she really liked “Monster High” and the eighties vibe of the room is very Stranger Things.

The Coffee Table is a celluloid panic attack which straps you in to ride with extreme discomfort. Casas cleverly plays with the visual and audio aesthetics to unsure you are going down the road of extreme trauma with Jésus – in a way the audience is his accomplice in wishing that what has occurred will be magically rectified. Late in the film María laughs and says, “I don’t think this shitty day can get any worse.” We know it can, and we know it will –

 Casas knows it too and he ensures that every excruciating second of The Coffee Table is a queasy pact the audience makes with the film.

Director: Caye Casas

Cast: David Pareja, Eduardo Antuña, Paco Benjumea

Writers: Cristina Borobia, Caye Casas

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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