At 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.