The Coffee Table is one of those impossible to review films because the inciting incident, which happens 20 minutes into the 88-minute run time, is an absolute game changer. It’s the definition of a “go in cold” film.
Still with me? Alright, well here’s the spoiler-free version: Jesús (David Pareja) and Maria (Estefanía de los Santos) are brand new parents who are going through a rough patch. The pregnancy drove a slight wedge between them, so even as they field happy inquiries from friends and relatives, they’re prone to passive aggressive bickering over the slightest issue.
Case in point: shopping for a new coffee table.
The Spanish film opens with Jesús ganging up on Maria with a furniture salesman to sell her on a garish glass monstrosity. It has an “unbreakable” glass top supported by two gold-plated figurines, which – as Maria dismissively observes – doesn’t go with any of the other furniture in their apartment. Jesús is adamant that he gets his wish, however; he’s still smarting that his wife named their newborn son Cayetano over his objections. And while on the surface disagreeing about a coffee table seems slight, it’s emblematic of the conflict within the couple’s relationship, as well as the film to come.
The film takes place over the course of a single day as the couple runs errands in anticipation of a lunch with Jesús’ brother Carlos (Josep Ma Riera) and his new girlfriend Christina (Claudia Riera). Following the purchase of the coffee table, the couple return home to continue fighting with a brief interlude when they run into their neighbours in the stairwell, including precocious and prone to misunderstanding 11-year-old Ruth (Gala Flores).
Afterwards Maria leaves Jesús to build his precious coffee table and look after Cayetano while she goes grocery shopping solo. Then something happens that shifts the entire narrative, reframes the nature of their argument and builds into a terrific, albeit incredibly grim, dark comedy.
The introductory furniture store scene is a perfect opener because it establishes the uncomfortable – and more than a little cringe-worthy – tone. The Coffee Table’s entire premise is based on awkward situational comedy that is both disturbing and pitch black.
This is a film where you laugh, then feel awful because you did.
It’s a tricky tonal tightrope for writer Cristina Borobia and co-writer/director Caye Cass to negotiate, but that’s where the brief runtime and tight edit works in the film’s favour.
The Coffee Table doesn’t waste a frame, using its innocuous situations to crank up the awkwardness to a nearly unbearable degree. Borobia and Cass also manage to organically draw out the reveal of what has occurred without overplaying their hand.
The comedy, cringe as it is, mostly comes from situational dialogue that acts like a double-edged sword. Adding to the unbearable nature of the proceedings is cinematographer Alberto Morago’s discomforting shooting style, which favours primarily medium and close-up handheld shots. It makes for an uncomfortably intimate experience that will have audiences oscillating back and forth between wanting to die from the anxiety, laughing at pitch black moments, and praying for the film to end already.
The Coffee Table is a truly wild ride. 4.5/5
The Coffee Table played at Fantastic Fest 2023. The film has been picked up for distribution by Cinephobia Releasing