CANNES, France — With his new film “Biutiful,” Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the director of such ambitious multicultural films as “Amores Perros” and “Babel,” shows he hasn’t changed at all.
Well, maybe a little bit.
The Mexico City-born, Los Angeles-based filmmaker premiered his new movie — a story of a low-level hustler (Javier Bardem) with a righteous streak — on Monday night at the Cannes Film Festival. The Spanish-language movie features no structural sleight-of-hand or interlocking stories in the manner of his three previous pictures (the Sean Penn-Benicio Del Toro drama “21 Grams” preceded “Babel”) — a function, in part, of Inarritu’s messy divorce with triptych-happy writer Guillermo Arriaga after the release of “Babel.” Instead, “Biutiful,” which Inarritu co-wrote with two new partners, moves pretty much directly forward in time and is centered intently on one man.
“After ‘Babel,’ I was very interested in showing one point of view and one character, which I’ve never done before,” says the director, sitting on a couch at a beachside restaurant the day after his premiere. “Writing a linear narrative is a much more rigorous and difficult challenge. There’s nowhere to hide and no tricks you can use.”
The man at the center of his trick-free enterprise is Uxbal (Bardem), who, we quickly learn, is dying of cancer but continues to sprint all over the back alleys of Barcelona running his low-level hustles, sometimes assisting and sometimes scamming various oppressed immigrants while also serving essentially as a single father to his two young children. (Uxbal’s wife, played by the excellent Maricel Alvarez, is bipolar and an unreliable mother.) There’s also a poignant subplot involving Uxbal’s dead father.
An exercise in a style that might be called gritty flash, “Biutiful” is also much heavier on character than on plot, depicting a man equally sympathetic and self-interested. As with many Inarritu protagonists, Uxbal is a tragic hero — he fundamentally wants to do the right thing but finds the universe continually conspiring against him.
Since its screening, the film has polarized audiences, with supporters (and given the nine-minute standing ovation at the premiere, there are plenty in the south of France) saying that Inarritu has crafted a visually striking portrait of loss and redemption. Detractors, meanwhile, have lamented that despite the move from interlocking structures, Inarritu here shows a dispiriting inability to shift out of his familiar gear of morose drama.
In a sense, both sides, the director acknowledges, are right.
“I’m an apple tree. I produce apples. I cannot produce any other fruit. Loss is a big fear of mine and it’s something I’ve been expressing in all my films,” he says. “But filmmakers are always changing as people. I’m in a more reflective stage now. I’m at the stage where you fear you’re becoming your father and your kids are becoming you, and I wanted to explore that.”
The film does not yet have American distribution and its difficult subject matter and paucity of stars could throw some hurdles in front of the U.S. buyer that picks it up (and one almost certainly will).
But Inarritu says he was intent on shooting in a foreign language, as well as putting some distance between his temporal-shifting style that many art-house filmgoers have come to associate him with and appreciate him for. “The funny thing is that I never did any of that as a brand. It was very worrying when people started saying that. That’s when you get trapped in your own style and you die,” Inarritu says, adding that he thinks the style has now been “overused, and in a very cheap way.”
Even without the temporal and narrative scope of his previous films, Inarritu treated this work like an opus, working on it intensely and fiddling with it for a long time. (The 2-hour, 20-minute work ended up at Cannes fully a year after many thought it would arrive here.) “It’s demanding. He works you very hard,” Bardem acknowledges in an interview. “But Alejandro also understands the delicacy of performance. He understands it’s a process that’s not about results but a journey that the camera just happens to witness.”
Having spent several years on that process, Inarritu says he’s in no rush to repeat it. Asked how quickly he’d like to move on to his next film and how much reinvention that one might entail, he gives an answer that could have come from a character in one of his dramas. “You have a guy in your stomach for three years,” he says of making a film. “And then you give birth. In front of 2,500 people. With no doctor. My body feels a little bit of pain right now.”