The Coffee Table

The Coffee Table (La mesita del comedor) (2022)

The Coffee Table (La mesita del comedor)screens at HÕFF – Haapsalu Horror and Fantasy Film Festival 

“I guarantee that this table, due to its design and standard, will change your life for the better,” says salesman Cayetano (Eduardo Antuña) to Jésus (David Pareja) and María (Estefanía de los Santos), out shopping with their newborn son who, coincidentally, is also called Cayetano – a name, taken from María’s grandfather, that reluctant but loving father Jésus intensely dislikes. In a furniture warehouse near the beginning of Caye CasasThe Coffee Table (La mesita del comedor), the salesman, perhaps sensing a certain friction in this couple, goes for the hard sell, promising: “It will fill your home with happiness”.

“It’s shit,” responds María, obviously unconvinced – and she is not wrong. For the Swedish-designed, Chinese-built ‘famous Rörret coffee table’ is a tacky monstrosity, with its glass top supported by two statuettes of naked, kneeling women painted with fake gold. María is even sceptical about the salesman’s claims of the table’s indestructibility. “Nothing is unbreakable,” she insists, to which the salesman replies, with equal measures of inaccuracy and ominousness: “A vase can be broken, a piece of furniture can be broken, a marriage can be broken – but darling, I give you my word, that this glass is unbreakable!”

Sometimes an ordinary object can propel the narrative of a film, as a kind of MacGuffin in the form of a household furnishing. Think the corpse-concealing Ottoman in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948), the bed in Robert Stevenson’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), the television set in Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982), the rug in the Coen brothers’ The Big Lebowski (1998), the lounge chair in Jay and Mark Duplass’ The Puffy Chair (2005), the mattress in Park Sye-young’s The Fifth Thoracic Vertebra (2021). This ugly, only half-wanted coffee table is also about to make its inanimate presence felt, changing lives forever, if not for the better.

In the end Jésus – who shares his surname Casas with the director – purchases the table not so much because he likes it as because María does not, in a rare expression of wilful agency from this man who feels that his partner has been calling all the shots, right down to their having a baby in the first place, which was far more her choice than his. And so, despite the salesman’s claims that the table will make the couple happy, in fact from the outset it is instrumentalised as a material embodiment of the cracks that are showing in Jésus and María’s relationship – and its introduction to an apartment, six flights up, which they have inherited from Jésus’ late grandmother, heralds the abrupt, catastrophic descent of this new family. 

Most of what follows takes place in the apartment, as there is an unspeakable – and unseen, but for its aftermath – accident involving the new coffee table, which it turns out is very breakable. As Jésus struggles to conceal both the evidence and his own trauma, and as we wait for the kind of wish-fulfilment miracle implied by Jésus and María’s very forenames, various parties will come to the house. María may refer to Jésus’ visiting middle-aged brother Carlos (Josep Maria Riera) as ‘paedo’ because he is dating 18-year-old vegan Cristina (Claudia Riera), but meanwhile 13-year-old Ruth (Gala Flores), from the apartment one floor up, is a manipulative home-wrecking fantasist who has convinced herself that Jésus really will embark on a non-existent relationship with an erotomaniacal minor, and is attempting to blackmail him into leaving María for her. This theme of paedophilia, both real and imagined, is reflected in the poster, borrowed from James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931) and set up by Jésus in his newborn’s playroom, of the giant monster looming menacingly over a little girl – although this image

click to reveal minor spoiler
of impending, involuntary infanticide
of course comes with other resonances in the film.

Consequently The Coffee Table is a genre-leaping marvel. Now a farce, now a melodrama, now a tragedy, it is uproariously funny until it is not at all – and its willingness to break one of cinema’s last taboos ensures that the viewer shares Jésus’ dazed state of shock and denial, unable quite to believe that what is long suspected to have happened really has happened. Cristina’s T-shirt may bear the slogan “No bad days”, and the welcoming mat outside Ruth’s apartment may be emblazoned with the words “Smile at life”, but the positivity of these empty bromides – as of the salesman’s opening patter about the table – is ironised and undermined by the film’s harrowing events.

These play out inexorably in something akin to real time, and leave the viewer never quite knowing how to react, so that the tension is constant and palpable, with the horror absurd and the laughs uneasy. If there is a message here at all, it is that if you wish to preserve a semblance of domestic bliss, listen to what your other half wants – and maybe avoid buying kitschy furniture for the wrong reasons. María may cackle uncontrollably when she sees the broken table, attributing what has happened to ‘karma’ – but here, karma works in mysterious ways, and the joy of laughter is short-lived.  

strap: Caya Cases’ tragic farce shows the fracturing relationship of a newborn’s parents and the furnishing that comes between them

© Anton Bitel