‘The Coffee Table’ Fantastic Fest 2023 Review: Nihilistic Comedy At Its Darkest And Most Anxiety-Inducing

The Coffee Table

It all starts with a coffee table. A really ugly coffee table with about as many sharp edges as humanly possible. Specifically, it’s a sheet of glass held up by two gold statues of nude women. But this table is more than just a piece of statement furniture. This represents the one thing Jesús (David Pareja) can control in his life as a new parent with a commandeering wife who seems to exist solely to remind him how much of a failure he is. And yet this one item becomes the object of his downfall in Caye Casas’ second feature film The Coffee Table, a pitch-black comedy of errors so stressful it makes the Safdie Brothers look like babies.

The Coffee Table is split into two parts: Before The Incident and After The Incident. Of course, revealing the incident ruins the early surprises of the film, so I’ll be talking around the specifics to ensure an optimal life-ruining experience. Even before the incident, everything about Jesus’ life felt like a banal nightmare. His wife Maria (Estefanía de los Santos) clings to their newborn and nitpicks everything he does and everything he says, reducing him to a pile of sad crumbs borne of her resentment.

And yet, can you blame her? While we’re seeing this world mostly through Jesús’ eyes, Cayas doesn’t paint him as that likable, either. He’s the typical loser husband who barely knows how to change a diaper or is capable of watching their baby unsupervised. They are a matchmade in hell and their toxicity swirls through every frame like a noxious gas. They’re the couple you dread inviting to parties because of their incessant bickering.

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After The Incident, which Maria doesn’t know about yet, her nitpicking and cruel laughter is amplified to become even more grating as Jesús struggles to keep the said incident a secret. In one particularly striking sequence, de los Santos’ raspy laugh is looped over and over, like a witch’s evil cackle taunting her next victim. While Maria’s character could be seen as a misogynistic trope of a nagging wife, Cayas imbues more empathy into his characters. He never excuses their toxicity, but he ensures to show the nuances of the relationship and how Jesús himself has helped shape Maria into the hardened person she’s become.

On the flip side, Pareja as Jesús is perfectly pathetic, dripping with sweat and showing off just how terrible his poker face is as he tries to prove that everything is perfectly fine. He blunders through each frame, gradually understanding the consequences of his actions with each passing moment. You feel for him as he tries to hide a terrible secret and yet you want to smack him across the face for being so willing to lie to avoid confronting reality. 

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Cayas’ script is a perfect balance of creating human monsters and making them empathetic to ensure his story has maximum impact. If Jesús and Maria were a two-dimensional terrible couple, the tension of their world After The Incident wouldn’t feel as dreadful. It would feel more comedic while here, despite their faults, Cayas has us see these characters are fallible humans who have fallen into a predictably bad dynamic thanks to the birth of a child. Giving that humanity to the couple makes their scenario all the more cutting. Every verbal jab feels like a knife to the brain as the viewer knows what’s unfolding and can do nothing to stop it. Once the train gets off the rails, there’s no stopping it and we are just helpless voyeurs on the worst day of a man’s life. 

The Coffee Table is feel-bad cinema at its finest, an anxiety-shredding experience that isn’t afraid to make you laugh. Cayas uses the absurd to craft his brand of comedy, the kind that makes you feel guilty at first, but the second you let out that first giggle, you won’t be able to stop. This is a film that tries its hardest to make you so anxious, that you’re nauseous, and boy does it succeed. This portrait of a marriage on fire is not a movie for the weak, but for those who seek out the bleak, the repulsive, and the disturbing, keep The Coffee Table on your radar.



This portrait of a marriage on fire is not a movie for the weak, but for those who seek out the bleak, the repulsive, and the disturbing, keep The Coffee Table on your radar.



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