Thought I’d write this in here since I’ve had the same conversation with two friends now:
One thing that Biutiful does that is very successful is to cause (force?) us to reinterpret the exact same scene in two different ways because of what follows or precedes it. It’s no secret that it’s pretty difficult to reinvent cinematic language these days. Biutiful, while stylistically an Inarritu film as I noted in my original post, doesn’t break new ground, but does keep technique fresh:
The film is bookended with the same scene. There are slight variations in the shot selection, but the dialogue and interaction between the two characters is identical. Very small SPOILERS here: Bardem’s Uxbal is in a snowy forest (maybe I’m just seeing Bertolucci in a lot of things these days, but this felt like a direct nod to the shooting scene in The Conformist). It’s gorgeous, dreamlike, and very different from the look of most of the remainder of the film in that the camera is rather stationary, the lighting is high-key, and white tones dominate the frame.
Uxbal has a conversation with a man, whose identity we don’t know at first. They talk about things like the sound of the sea and owls. The scene ends abruptly as something catches their attention and they leave frame. Eventually we figure out that this is Uxbal speaking with his grandfather, a man he hardly knew.
From what follows the first scene – sequences of cancer, broken marriages and grief – we gradually interpret this first scene as somewhat pessimistic. It’s not a dark scene, but it becomes a sort of purgatory (about halfway through the film it’s evident that this prologue is indeed a dream/hallucinatory scene). In short, it offers no optimism. It’s abrupt ending is testament to that and we are left with a glimpse of Uxbal in some strange limbo.
Fast forward to the end of the film. The same scene is replayed. This is preceded by a pervasive, and unexpected sense of optimism in the film – Uxbal accepts death, etc etc, as I noted in my earlier entry. Because of the direct juxtaposition this scene now plays out like a sort of heaven, albeit one without a directly religious connotation.
It’s a fascinatingly simple technique, but one that works wonders and speaks to the power of montage: play the same thing twice and have other scenes, not the scene itself, decide its meaning.