Biutiful Dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu

[Roadside Attractions; 2010]

Styles: melodrama
Others: 21 Grams, Babel, Ikiru

Early on in Biutiful, the protagonist, Uxbal (Javier Bardem), looks outside his bathroom window and sees a homeless person on the street. His reaction is passive — this is the way things are — until he looks down and notices that he’s pissing blood. Ouch. In a seemingly unrelated scene soon afterward, we see a topless woman cavorting around a bedroom to music, glass of wine in hand, as her still-bedded lover answers the phone. “Cremate him!” he says into the receiver. “Cremate who?” she asks. “My father!” he replies. This wonderfully absurd scene is one of the most upbeat in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s latest film — that is, until her lover starts assaulting her. As in the director’s previous work (21 Grams, Babel), when there’s a party, it can’t go on for too long; just a few scenes later, this woman enters Uxbal’s kitchen, and we realize that she’s his wife. She asks him for money, and he refuses; but soon, of course, he gives in, making sure to mention that it’s the money he needs to remove his father’s corpse from the grave. Oh, yeah, that guy on the phone you saw her with earlier? That’s Uxbal’s brother. If it isn’t clear by now how much Uxbal’s life sucks, just you wait.

Iñárritu is obsessed with death. His last three films are referred to as the ‘death trilogy,’ and it’s a fact that stagnantly hangs over the majority of Biutiful’s bloated, mostly joyless 2.5-hour runtime. The director, who has enjoyed more awards success than his Mexican contemporaries (Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón), is an auteur of melodrama that is overwrought, contrived, and shot handheld. His last three films, which were written in collaboration with Guillermo Arriaga, each told multiple stories within one framework that somehow revolved around or were interconnected with several tragic events. In Biutiful, his first film set in Spain and without Arriaga, he foregoes intersecting narratives for one big slog through the life of an underworld figure in Barcelona who learns he has cancer, telling neither his bipolar wife nor his sugar-dieting children. Already weary, seen mostly with tired eyes and stubble on his chin, his reasons for concealing his fate are less noble than purely rational, considering what happens to him in the rest of the film, including a sudden raid and deportment of his African suppliers by the police, and an “accidental” gas leak that kills off most of his Chinese illegal immigrant workforce. What are the chances? Bardem, generally a fine actor, merely looks the part; his one-note performance seems due more to the hollow dramatic weight of the material than any of his own shortcomings. Iñárritu’s film has a handful of (read: too many) subplots that one can reasonably infer will end badly, and it’s hard to care when the central character is someone so passive, particularly when only we know who his wife’s been fucking.

While Biutiful lacks dramatic interest, it certainly isn’t boring to look at. With help from longtime collaborators (cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto and editor Stephen Mirrione), most of the film is shot handheld with lots of sharp, jarring cuts, capturing a multi-angularity within scenes that is often stunning. In one shot, we get a slowly revolving view of Bardem’s upper body and the sky above as he searches his pockets for money; in another, he runs out onto a bridge and we get a wide view of a flock of birds sweeping across the sky. These moments might seem soulful if Iñárritu were telling a more compelling story; though his film does contain some indelible imagery, backed by Gustavo Santaolalla’s evocative score, his attempts at poetic lyricism feel artificial. Biutiful begins with an effectively dreamlike juxtaposition of past and present, making me wonder if this was going to be a story viewed from the afterlife; but its subsequent descent into “real” life is so hollow and soporific, it makes those later bouts of magical realism seem misplaced. I’m not sure exactly what Iñárritu intended by making a heartbeat audible on the soundtrack while Uxbal embraces his daughter, but it calls attention to itself in a way that completely diffuses the immersive quality his film would otherwise have.

The title of the film refers to his son’s misspelling of the word beautiful, a metaphor for Uxbal’s attempt to shelter his children from this immeasurably ugly world. The interactions between Uxbal and the kids (played admirably by Hanaa Bouchaib and Guillermo Estrella) are the emotional highlights of the film, and I wished Iñárritu would focus more on the warmly organic family dynamic he creates, rather than battering the viewer with meatless and sensationalistic narrative developments. There’s a scene in the movie when Uxbal ends a business meeting with two Chinese men, leaving them to engage in a moment of heavy petting. The fact that these men are in a passionate homosexual relationship proves completely extraneous to the film’s plot and may be the most head-scratching string pulled. That aside, it’s clearly time for Iñárritu to lighten up — Biutiful’s barrage of empty provocation makes it depression-porn at its dullest.

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