At the film’s second screening, director and fine artist Paulina Freifeld left audiences at KGB’s theater with one cheeky question: what’s for dinner?
“This is the story of how I lost my job, and most of my body.”
Gratuity Included begins with the head of a nervous, yet confident, waiter in mime-ish stage makeup widening his eyes in anticipation to serve, not yet knowing that his customers will soon demand all he physically has to offer. He delivers this first line casually, as if his career in hospitality is more of a spiritual act of sacrifice.
Based on the fine line between service and self-immolation, Gratuity Included is a neurotropic tale of gluttony and regret. Director and fine artist Paulina Freifeld explained her relationship to the film in a Q&A after its second official screening on December 13, 2023 in the theater at KGB, New York City’s local artsy-fartsy madhouse for East Village dwellers. It’s apparent that Freifeld works best in the gaps: Between live action and cartoon, real and abstract, diegetic and dubbed. The characters—Fat Oldie, Proper Lady, Sick Fellow and Spacey Hippie—are archetypes based on her family, communicating to the waiter solely in crude non-verbal gestures, eye movements, and grunts, made visceral with ASMR-like sound design. He obliges, passing a comically long list of orders to a cigarette-smoking chef who prepares their meals in what looks like a stop-motion superposition, pots and pans flying as if attached to phantom limbs, cooking all the food in sight. The waiter serves his customers, but they want more. He gives them his clothes to snack on, and there’s a tonal shift. As Proper Lady slurps his bowtie, the tide changes—all the wet eating sounds become less joke-y, and more tragic. This transference comes through in longer shots, and woozier, resonant lip smacks, a welcome editing decision that allows the sonorous to become sinister for audiences in waiting for the big finale. Will they vomit, or riot? Still hungry, a chorus of banging forks and knives becomes a series of onomatopoeic slices, as the waiter cuts off his extremities—with the additional butt surrounded by a verdant salad, for dramatic effect. Plated before the fray, they gobble them up all the same.
The film ends where it begins, with a talking head balanced before mountains of dirty tableware, this time with the realization that taking orders will result in losing your body. Paced quickly within a frame story, undeniable glitz weaves into dark humor so seamlessly that it begs the question: when ensconced with meeting the expectations of your family, do you ever realize it until it’s too late? This is the impact of Gratuity Included that makes it so genius—audiences feel absurdity throughout, but only get the queasy impression of its seriousness once the waiter is reduced to a bodiless sycophant.
Gratuity Included is highly stylized from concept to costume, which tracks with the fact that the short film premiered this past month at ASVOFF (A Shaded View on Fashion Film) Festival, the brainchild of French fashion journalist Diane Pernet, this year hosted by Dover Street Market Paris. Of her film’s distinct aesthetic, Freifeld shares that her initial producer wanted to shoot in an opulent Spanish restaurant. She refused this request, favoring instead an unremarkable salon, quoting a friend who told her that a set is born out of the amalgam of costume, make-up, and hair brought into a space, rather than the ready-made trappings of a fancy location. The film can be seen as a balancing act between film departments: Art, wardrobe, and lighting come together to manifest a sense of creepy splendor. The grooming, Freifeld said, was conceived via her finger and the Instagram stories ‘draw’ feature over the cast’s headshots, which is perhaps the best way to understand her both as a director and an artist.
A tour de force in the dangers of giving too much, Gratuity Included shows the potential bodily harm that goes along with taking orders, an abstract on the dangers of doing what you’re told. Eager to please proves to be an understatement for the waiter on screen, but not for Freifeld, whose film debut shows that no matter what, she’s going to do whatever the fuck she wants.