Cannes: Alejandro González Iñárritu's 'Biutiful' is bleak, a little inert...and just cosmically tragic enough to win the Palme d'Or

biutifulAt Cannes, there are two kinds of movies that take home the top jury prize, the droolingly coveted Palme d’Or. There are the films that deserve it, like Taxi Driver or The Ballad of Narayama or sex, lies, and videotape or 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days. And there are the movies that achieve a notably facile, Euro-friendly brand of total heaviosity, and are therefore shoo-ins. You probably think that I’m just finding a snarky way to dismiss the Palme d’Or winners I haven’t agreed with. But I’d contend that the celebrated Cannes films in the total-heaviosity category, while acclaimed at the time as deathless works of art, don’t age well. To see what I mean, here’s a list of some of those winners: The Mission, Elephant, Wild at Heart, Farewell My Concubine, Barton Fink, Paris, Texas, and — give it time — last year’s The White Ribbon. Be honest: Are you moved, truly, to see any of those movies again? (I’ve got kind of a soft spot for Barton Fink, but please.) This is the sort of heaviosity that only grows heavier, yet less profound, with the years.

This morning, I saw Biutiful, the new movie by Alejandro González Iñnáritu, a director whose work I have always enjoyed, and admired, tremendously. I was blown away by Amores Perros (2000), thought 21 Grams (2003) was convulsive and powerful if a little pretentious, and got sucked right into the globe-hopping vortex of humanistic strife that was Babel (2006), a movie so middlebrow-liberal and Oscar-ready that it didn’t even win at Cannes. Biutiful, on the other hand, may just come through for Iñárritu, even though I think it’s the first film of his that doesn’t really work. It’s set in one of the scruffiest, most low-rent districts of Barcelona, and its main character — in many ways, its only character — is a vaguely defined underworld operator named Uxbal, played by Javier Bardem, who brings the role every charismatically morose shading of disruption and anger and despair he can.

Here’s the trick: Nothing goes right for Uxbal. Absolutely nothing at all. He’s got two small kids, and he can barely get through a meal without yelling at one of them. He’s got an estranged wife (Marical Álvarez) who’s a bipolar ex-junkie basket case, with frazzled hair and an even more frazzled personality. She can barely get through a conversation without sliding into hysterics — and, in case that’s not dysfunctional enough for you, she’s sleeping with Uxbal’s brother, who is also his business partner. The two run drugs, manage crooked construction deals, and oversee a sweatshop, but things aren’t going well there either. The Senegalese immigrants who sell heroin for them keep dealing it in the nice part of downtown, where the cops run roughshod over them, and the sweatshop is staffed by about a dozen Chinese immigrants who…well, all I’ll say is that something very bad happens to them. And it’s all Uxbal’s fault, because he bought cheap heaters! Did I mention that our hero, who pees blood, is diagnosed very early on with prostate cancer and has been given only a few months to live? Talk about putting the X in existential.

This is where I’m supposed to say that Biutiful lays on the agony too thick, that it’s too hopeless and depressing for its own good. Actually, it is too depressing, but that’s not the fundamental problem with it. The problem is that none of the characters are remotely developed, so there’s not much actual drama to Uxbal’s rapidly unraveling life. What there is is a mood — that Iñárritu vibe of grungy kitchens and messy bedrooms and squalid lower-class hell, of degradation so pronounced that it strips the characters down to their “essential selves,” so that they’re nothing but hunger and heart and grace.

At least, that’s the idea. And it’s a very, very Catholic idea. In Biutiful, however (the title is a child’s crayon-scrawl misspelling of “beautiful”), Iñárritu is much too busy portaying Uxbal as a petty desperate criminal-saint to bother nailing down essential details — like, for instance, why he always has wads of cash but never seems to use any of the money for himself; or a coherent vision of what he and his wife ever shared in the first place. Biutiful is a one-man show of masochistic implosion, shot in that whipsawing hand-held Iñárritu style that practically screams, “This is no gloss, it’s reality!” Iñárritu’s grand theme is the cosmic ache of displaced persons, but here he offers a far more austerely pessimistic version of it than he did in Babel. Bardem, both a great actor and a great movie star (playing a man about to die, he has never looked more glamourous), does everything he can with the role, and by the end of the film you’ll be moved, at least mildly, as well as worn out. But the most genuinely exhausting quality of Biutiful – its sketchiness that verges on holy abstraction — is what may well put it over at Cannes. It can play as Iñárritu’s overheated version of a Robert Bresson passion play. It’s made to lift you up to the heavens, so that you can really admire it.

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  • Fatima

    Are you really putting Farewell My Concubine on that list? That’s a little sad.

    • Gaby

      Totally agree. I can definitely watch Farewell My Concubine at least once a year. So NOT forgettable and double dip worth it.

  • Ethan

    I’m just so surprised that Babel is the type of movie of Inarritu’s that you argue “worked.” It was inert when it wasn’t torture, or a well-acted soap opera.

    • Sean Elliott

      Well Ethan, I agree “Babel” is not a movie for the heavens but Owen isn’t the only person in the world who liked it, or respected it. You act like Owen is in a world of his own. F-U.

  • Kevin

    Sorry Owen, but Wild at Heart and Barton Fink are movies I have watched, and will continue to watch, numerous times. Great movies. Honestly, the only films on your list I agree with are Paris, Texas and Elephant (which I never could will myself to finish watching).

  • Chloe

    Maybe I’m completely alone in this, but I still really love Paris, Texas.

    • Sean Elliott

      I nevertheless appreciate Owen’s comments about the middlebrow movie at Cannes; the film that works as debate piece for one year but doesn’t age well. But agreed, “Paris Texas” is the strongest Grade-A film, the singular one, of Owen’s cluster of titles. Still, Owen’s comments on the aged Palm D’Or winner is spot on. Indeed, “Taxi Driver,” “sex lies and videotape,” “The Ballad of Narayama” (really, it’s superb) and “Four Months…” are timeless.

    • George Thomacini

      Yes, Paris, Texas is still a very good movie. If some people don’t like it it’s because they are poopyheads

  • Nick T

    Maybe he’s got a point. I’ve heard of all the the first set of examples and non of the second. But I disagree about White Ribbon.

  • Victor Eloy

    we will have to wait to watch this film to saywether it’s ood or not..though it sounds too depressing…
    Amores Perros was awesome….but I didnt like Babel at all..
    the only decent part was teh japanese girl who was deaf….
    but the plot in Morrocco and in the US Mexican border was so chicleeeeeeeee.I found that film so overrated…….

    • Sean Elliott

      Then I guess that means you would hate “Buitiful” is to what Owen is telling you. Now you know what to skip next Fall. “Your welcome.”

    • Vika

      Victor, my thoughts exactly. EXACTLY. Anywho, looking forward to seeing the new one!

  • shtuka

    Where did you learn to write about films? The back of a cereal box? Wild at heart? The white ribbon? I bet your one of those idiots who just can’t deal with deep emotional films…let alone understand them

    • Sean Elliott

      “Wild at Heart” is not a deep emotional film, Shtuka. Where did you learn how to select pen names? Where did you learn how to structure your arguments? Finger painting class in 1st grade? So why exactly are “Wild at Heart” and “The White Ribbon” seminal films? You didn’t exactly write a single insightful argument as to why they’re good.

  • shtuka

    Plus compared to all the other films I’ve seen in competition this year, this one stands out the most…but I’m sure your one of those ppl that praised robin hood. I know its an out of competition film I’m just certain your taste in movies can’t be good

    • Ethan

      Here’s a link to Owen’s review of Robin Hood, to which he gave a C-: http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20368526,00.html. Even people who can deal with “deep, emotional films” might disagree with you about which ones qualify as either. I, for one, think Wild at Heart is a mess, but to each his own.

  • Matt

    Maybe it’s because i am European, but i still consider The white Ribbon, Farewell my Concubine, Elephant and Paris, Texas to be great movies!

  • Samra

    I think this movie sounds absolutely amazing. If you felt like what you explained from just watching what sounds like a one character story, then this must be brilliantly acted and scripted.

    And I have to disagree with the Mission, it is one of my favorite films and I could watch it every couple few months.

  • francisco

    So, you don’t like Paris-Texas?
    Man!
    What are you doing writing about movies?
    You don’t like movies at all.
    …oh, sorry, this E.W… yep, probably you are more for the Break-up plan, with J-LO.

    • Sean Elliott

      Relax man, cool your jets. I’m sure Owen would give “Paris, Texas” a B or B+. Calm down, people. Glad everybody likes it here. “The Back-Up Plan” is a genre with a different purpose, the date/handjob movie. Does that makes Owen’s grades more justifiable? So friggin’ chill, d-wads.

  • alex

    paris, texas!??! really??? come on, go get a heart-brain connection

  • Memo

    It seems that we do not share the same taste for movies…. I have seen more then once every single movie that you mentioned as those who people don’t watch more than once. But I thank you for your comments… If you did not like this one either probably it’s going to be a great one for me

  • Vlad

    Barton Fink and Paris Texas are great ageless movies, what are you talking about? The one thing that hasn´t aged well is your sense of taste, it seems. Was it ever good?

    • Sean Elliott

      Owen likes “Barton Fink,” Vlad, in fact he gave it a B in his original 1991 review (look things up before you comment). But can it be agreed that the Coens’ have a half a dozen movies more accomplished, more thematically coherent? Hey Vlad, has anyone ever told you if you can’t bring anything to the party then don’t bother showing up at all?

      • shtuka

        Unfortunately sean unlike you I have a life and don’t follow some hack writer from review to review…it seems that this film is more appealing to europeans due to having socialist issues. Not all movies are made to entertain and the point is that this writer doesn’t seem to understand that sometimes a film is more about the message it delivers than whether it can be watched over repeated viewings. A critics job lies more on how well the director is able to relay that message across to the audience, and it seems in this case the guy is just slating it because he didn’t have a good time watching it. Ok if you didn’t like wild at heart I can wrap my mind around that, but this film is something different. It deals with day to day life of something that could very well be going on in spain today. This film is a social commentary, not your weekend 3D blockbuster.

      • Vlad

        He gave it a “B”?! So it’s true he never had good taste.Barton Fink is one the Coen’s best. Its main theme is not explicit, and a lot of people fail to get it, and that might have confused this so called movie critic. Hint1: the hotel in which Barton Fink lives in Los Angeles is, literally, Hell. Hint2: Though he claims otherwise, Barton doesn´t really know anything about the “common man”…Still don’t get it? Blatant Spoiler: Barton Fink is a mediocre but successful writer (a common man who thinks he’s extraordinary)who is made to go on a journey through Hell in order that he might find out what the lives of common men are really like.

  • shtuka

    On the critic part I meant to say its his job to rate a film on how well the message is carried out for the audience.

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