Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is an ambitious director. His latest effort, Biutiful picks up stylistically and thematically where he left us last with 2006’s Babel: intertwining stories (see my post on Heights) and a confrontation with mortality (and morality, for that matter).
Biutiful feels like a mix of narratives. There’s a little bit of Breaking Bad in here. A bit of The Visitor. Even some Black Swan. These are all, of course, very recent works, which is not to say that Biutiful feels ripped from 2010. In fact, Rodrigo Prieto’s gorgeous cinematography (I can’t stress that enough – some of the best cinematography I’ve seen since The White Ribbon) plants us in a Spain that feels timeless. Here’s an attempt at a description that doesn’t really make that much sense, but seems to fit: The look of the film is like a perpetual city-timelapse, though not sped up. It’s as if the neon lights, overwhelming skylines and grimy underground locales tell as much of the tale as the other elements.
And here’s another truly breathtaking part of the film: those locations. Every space is carefully calculated to fit the overall mise-en-scene. Every wall is textured, worn and/or wallpapered. Every overhead or bedside lamp has a worn frame or a perfectly frayed shade. The location scouting process of this film must have been immense, but it’s the rare film that can boast not a boring or a incongruous location in the mix. This one can.
Inarritu uses his camera almost violently. His is of the handheld style that many modern foreign auteurs (I’m thinking of you, Dardenne bros) favor, but it’s much less observatory. Inarritu seems to throw his camera into the mix. It’s energetic, losing sight of characters at times, whipping back around to find the end of a critical action as though it cares as much for the nervous tension of the frame as it does for what actually takes place within it. The camera does calm down at times, but its personality (because this is truly a camera that “acts” as much as Javier Bardem) raises the pulse of the film, making the moments devoid of emotion (which admittedly, are few are far between) a voice all their own.
Bardem…I can’t say much here. This man can act. Gaunt face, hollowed eyes, oscillating between external emotional outbursts and a very internal fury. The moment at the beginning and end (bookend structure) where he laughs aloud is so surprising and refreshing – especially the second time around – precisely because he hasn’t done so up until that point. I love you Firth, but Bardem deserves serious consideration in an awards race.
I haven’t said much about story aside from some tossed off comparisons. Bardem’s Uxbal learns he has cancer. This is at about the 15-20 minute mark. So from here on we have a “3 months to live” story playing out. No Hollywood-izing in here. Uxbal does not go find his long-lost love. He doesn’t steal a million dollars. He doesn’t fade into the sunset amidst a romantic suicide. What’s refreshing about Biutiful is that Uxbal strives to continue to exist. In fact, were he not diagnosed with a fatal illness, I’m not entirely sure that the story of the film would be different. Now we’d have different emotional characteristics, but this is the charm of the film. Uxbal is going to die. He continues to try to make money – and maybe he tries a little harder to provide for his children. He continues to help those around him – and maybe he tries a little harder with one certain immigrant because she can be a surrogate mother for his children. He continues to have a very real feeling love/hate relationship with his bipolar wife – and maybe he returns to her a little sooner because he knows the clock is ticking.
But the point is that the weight of the news acts as a reason for Uxbal not to change anything, which is entirely counter to, and likely as, if not more true, than the glossed up storytelling much more common to larger audiences.
Biutiful falls into one major trap, and that is that it succumbs to melodrama at times. Two lines jump out. Maramba (Maricel Alvarez), Uxbal’s wife, tells him about her battle with bipolarity amidst a heated argument: “I stopped taking the pills because they weren’t helping with my bipolarity” (my paraphrase). When Ige’s (Diaryatou Daff) husband is deported to Senegal she and Uxbal form a strange relationship (the surrogate mother I mentioned earlier). Her first line to Uxbal after learning of her husband’s imminent departure: “And what about the baby?”
I’m nit-picking, but these stuck out because everything else felt so honest. In these moments the script seems to want to ratchet up the pity when it wasn’t necessary.
There’s one last thing that I want to note about Biutiful. Inarritu has a very clever interpretation of Uxbal’s cancer, and also his ability to commune with the dead. This last part sounds like I ignored a huge part of the plot, but in fact this only comes into play slightly, and more as theme than actual plot. There are a variety of mirror shots where Uxbal’s reflection is just a few frames later than his actual movement. No cut to the reflection. Nothing to emphasize this. You either see it or you don’t. Those subtle moments add a lot for the careful viewer.
He builds on this theme in more obvious, but just as effective ways. There’s a repeated shot (three times, I believe) of the corner of his bedroom ceiling. The first time we see it, just post-cancer news, there is a small clutter of large black moths. The second time we see it, about halfway through the film, the moths have increased in number. The last time, which is very near to the end of the film, the moths are gone.
Here’s a symbolic shot. It might feel heavy-handed to some. Lots of ways to look at it. Moths = metastasis. When they are gone, Uxbal’s cancer isn’t gone, but he is about to die, so they are, in effect, gone.
But I think there are other ways to look at this series of shots. Let’s assume that the above-described 1-1 symbolic relationship still holds true. I like it, and to some extent, I think it’s obvious. But these moths seem to be a source of guilt as well. SPOILER here: when Uxbal finds that he is responsible for the death of a large number of immigrants he sees their bodies suspended from the ceiling in an enormously haunting and effective moment. Is this his supernatural powers coming into play, or a personification of his desire to “put [his] affairs in order” as a fellow psychic tells him? I think the latter. The film is about clutter, in some sense.
As Uxbal gets closer to an ending, and a form of a resolution, the film itself becomes more and more cluttered, culminating in a club scene that is as claustrophobic and visually engaging as any in Black Swan or Enter the Void (why all the neon-strobing club scenes in 2010?). The club is cluttered with people. His MRI is cluttered with cancer. The moths clutter the ceiling. It’s simple really. Get rid of the clutter, Uxbal, and you can die. The goal, in Biutiful is death, not life. But a death that is “in order,” free of moths and guilt, and accepted.