HeyUGuys LogoThere appears to be a pattern emerging for the films included in this year’s Cannes film festival. Almost without exception, the list of films is populated by auteurs, making films that are very “on-brand”, following that director’s familiar artistic manifesto so that what we watch is almost stereotypically of them. Biutiful is another, like Mike Leigh’s Another Year, like Woody Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, or Gregg Araki’s Kaboom, that looked initially to continue a director’s creative manifesto. But if I primarily thought that it was going to follow the trend set by director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s work lately on 21 Grams and Babel, I was to be sorely disappointed once the lights went back up on the sprawling theatre it screened in. Though I didnt particularly enjoy Babel, it had moments of brilliance that I had come to expect from the director, but Biutiful was to be more of a slog than a case for being the director’s grand opus.

Rather confusingly, I’ve just noticed that IMDB follows the trend that I have seen in some of the more reputable daily publications out here, with its use of a very misleading synopsis, which suggests an entirely different film to what Biutiful actually is:

A man involved in illegal dealing is confronted by his childhood friend, who is now a policeman.

Erm, okay. So, my warning to anyone who likes the idea of a bristling thriller with Bardem cast as a crook torn between childhood allegiance and his amoral lifestyle (which Ive just sold to myself during that sentence), is that Biutiful is an entirely different creature indeed.

The wider cast performances are all good, with a wonderfully unpredictable and volatile performance by Maricel Alvarez as Marambra, the separated mother of Javier Bardem’s children (themselves played by real life sublings Hanaa and Guillermo Estrella) and a measured, sleazy showing from Eduard Fernandez, as Bardem’s hedonist brother Tito. But there is a good reason why each performance is offered there by their relation to Bardem’s character Uxbal: Biutiful is undoubtedly a vehicle forJavier Bardem to offer one of the best performances he has yet offered.

For good reason Bardem is counted as one of the heavy-weights in acting at the minute- after his astounding performance in No Country For Old Men he has leapt to the forefront of cinephiles’ awareness, and his strong work continues in Biutiful. He has one of those utterly compelling looks that makes him cinematic gold, he is good looking in an interesting way, and as such can believably play complex characters from across a broadly imaginative spectrum.

As Uxbal, a separated father trying to juggle his responsibilities (both financial and loving) to his children, as well as two groups of illegal immigrants he helps employ with his jobs (one of which intriguingly is as a ghost-seeker) and the revelation that he is gravely ill, Bardem is just mesmorising. He wears the scars of his existence scratching a living, often illegally, perfectly, and his command over explosive emotion, as well as the now legendary threat of violence that bubbles under his surface give the character enormous depth. For all of the problems I will come to discuss, it is still very worthwhile watching Uxbal’s deterioration, as cancer destroys his body and he is haunted by the prospect of his children growing up without him in a seedy, particular dark version of Barcelona.

It is an emormous shame then that the film itself simply doesnt match the intrigue or performance of the character. While the narrative does not feel particularly fractured- rather atypically for the director of 21 Grams and Babel we have a narrative that runs in almost complete linear order (apart from a repeated scene that bookends the action)- there is something definitely wrong with it.  Perhaps it is that at almost two and a half hours long, the film is far too bloated by too many subplots: one immigration strand would surely have sufficed, and the brief exploration of the homosexual relationship between Chinese human trafficker Hai and his brusque lover played by Luo Jin is dealt with with a bitter-tasting disdain and pretty much rendered unnecessary. Indeed the best exploration of the relationship I have read after the screening comes from the ever-dependable Variety:

A subplot involving Hai and his no-good lover feels especially misguided, even offensive in the way it seems to equate homosexuality with venality.

Aside from the perceived bad treatment of that relationship, there are simply too many distracting sidelines, usually when Inarritu tries to give the peripheral characters more depth. In conjunction with the directorial attempt to ostensibly allign all of the audience’s focus with Uxbal, which becomes no more than an alienating endeavour, the effect is doubly distracting and confusing. We are offered the chance to explore other characters, while being led by certain narrative devices that are designed to ensure that we understand that Biutiful is explicitly Uxbal’s film- he is consciously alienated and morally marooned by the incompetent or moral repugnance of every other character (even his 7 year old son is physically abusive and smokes in bed) and we are encouraged to empathise with his position.

Uxbal is an island, further alienated for his supernatural gift by non-believers, but Inarritu continues his usual trick of revisiting the sins of other characters on the essentially good main characters by having Uxbal commit an attrocious crime accidentally through a desire to offer his charity to others. The moral heart of the film is wrestled for in front of our very eyes, so that the only fully redeemable character is Uxbal’s daughter (even the charitable nanny played without ostentation by Diaryatou Daff flickers towards the dark side of the coin at one point), and Inarritu clearly believes that moral scales are often only relative.

Aside from Bardem’s brilliance, the good points are few and far between, as Inarritu struggles to offer anything like the energy or emotional impact that made 21 Grams such a good experience. One such good point is the way the film-makers have offered a new, less romanticised depiction of Barcelona as a city with a dark underbelly and some shameful secrets. The city has rarely looked worse, and Inarritu’s portrait of a city of crime, diseased by epidemic immigration is far removed from what we have come to expect- and the fact that it is shot so wonderfully by cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto emphasises the gravitas of the visuals even further.

In fact, from a technical stand-point, Biutiful is incredibly well made. It is wondrous to look at, filmed brilliantly, with some of the strongest hand-held work Ive seen in a while, and an incredibly appropriate soundtrack, and the artesan achievement of the production should not be discredited because the substance simply is not there. Sadly, audiences wont go in for that sort of evaluation, and the film may do well to avoid a lot of negative criticism (especially in light of what has been said about it out here).

Because, at the end of the day, unfortunately, Biutiful is more a tale of  fleeting promise, which is suggested all too briefly in the sequences based around Uxbal’s supernatural gift and holds enough intrigue to suggest that there was a stand-alone film somewhere in that subplot. There are particular moments when Uxbal sees, or feels the presence of a spirt (with varying degrees of torment) that are tremendously affecting, and wonderfully shot, with only quick and scant focus on the spirits themselves which I could definitely see working in a seriously scary horror film. The fact that we experience the ghosts only through the visual vernacular offered by Uxbal and his reactions to them (usually in close focus, with the camera glimpsing over his shoulder) makes the sequences genuinely frightening, especially when teamed with some chilling sound-work, and I would love to see it stretched into the primary focus of a movie. If you look closely at the final credits, one possible reason for the success of those sequences becomes a little clearer- one Guilherme Del Toro is billed as an Associate Producer, but you can almost palpibly feel his influence, alongside Inarritu’s on screen for those all too fleeting moments.

It is difficult to like Biutiful: for every glimpse of greatness there is to much stagnation, and in all honesty the film is rather tedious. But Javier Bardem can walk away with his head held high- hopefully onto projects that better suit his talent. Whisper it, but you get the feeling that Inarritu made this film solely for his own enjoyment, and the self-indulgence sadly cuts a telling spectre on the film.