“What’s Over There?”: The Possibility of Hope in Biutiful

  • dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu (2010), Mexico & Spain

Biutiful, its title the phonetic Spanish spelling of the English word, is the fourth film by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu. His first three films, Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003), and Babel (2006), were united by a gritty, sometimes vicious focus on human mortality and a multi-character, hyper-soap-opera format. Biutiful marked a change in approach by focusing intently on one protagonist, a pattern that held for Iñárritu’s subsequent films Birdman (2013) and The Revenant (2015).

That protagonist in Biutiful is Uxbal, who, dying from cancer, separated from an unstable and vulnerable wife, and struggling to raise two small children, exercises the full (considerable) gravitas of Spanish star Javier Bardem. Bardem’s performance, hailed by critics and award ceremonies alike, carries the film and essentially so, for Uxbal is in virtually every scene.

Iñárritu’s focus on death has not changed from his first three films. Biutiful opens with a short scene where Uxbal meets a young man in a snow-covered wood. We learn later that the young man is Uxbal’s father, who died when Uxbal was in utero. During his life Uxbal is able to see ghosts and moonlights as a medium, passing messages between the bereaved and their lost loved ones. He is less able to face his own mortality: discussing his cancer with a faith healer, Uxbal insists ‘I’m not going to die, Bea. No.’ They look each other in the eye; they (and we) know it isn’t true. The audience’s realisation that the opening scene is an anachronism set in some kind of afterlife mirrors Uxbal’s own gradual acceptance over the course of the film that his death is certain.

Iñárritu was always a director interested in how humans endure in desperate conditions, from the Mexico City criminal underworld of Amores Perros to the nineteenth century South Dakota of The Revenant. His Barcelona is similarly Hobbesian, an amoral, lethal environment forcing its inhabitants into a battle for survival. Uxbal’s particular corner of the city subsists on a business in counterfeit designer handbags, produced by Chinese workers in underground factories and sold by Senegalese hustlers on Barcelona’s fashionable high streets.

Biutiful’s first act revolves mainly around documenting the system that contains these people. The Chinese workers sleep in a warehouse with the windows and doors sealed to keep them hidden from the attentions of the state. As winter sets in, Uxbal installs gas heaters. The heaters are cheap and faulty; they leak gas into the sealed room and kill the Chinese as they sleep. The two factory owners are distraught: “We’re ruined,” they gasp. Their horror is in their irreparable loss of assets rather than the human tragedy, but the film does not condemn them. It simply maps their place in the system, showing them to be as vulnerable and isolated as anyone else in the chain.

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So far, so Marx. However effectively it’s drawn, the point that capitalism is ruthless is not a new one. What makes Biutiful interesting is that the desperate image of the Chinese’ cadavers washed up on the beach, grey in the foreground as the sun rises golden over Barcelona’s façade in the background, is a point of departure rather than conclusion. Having shown us the mechanics and outcomes of the market system, the film then moves on to look at the logic, perhaps even the spirit, behind it; the law and order framework underwriting the handcuffs.

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Early in the film we see a policeman being bribed by Uxbal to turn a blind eye to the Senegalese selling goods illegally on the streets. ‘Do you remember Victor, Julia’s son?’ the officer asks Uxbal. ‘He moved to Murcia to tame tigers in a circus. Last month I ran into his mum. One of the tigers tore off part of his face and killed him. He fed them every day. Every day for six years. But one time, he messed up.’

Elsewhere in the opening moments, the camera lingers on street art depicting a vagrant walking into the mouth of a giant shark of bank notes.

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The vagrant is beige, featureless, hunched of shoulder; his cart is overloaded with junk. He seems unaware of the vast body of the shark whose mouth he approaches (is the shark blind?) and is a picture of Sisyphean graft. It’s a visual riff on the policeman’s story: an impoverished human at the mercy of a powerful animal.

The anecdote and the graffiti, oblique, brutal, and sad, encapsulate the world of Iñárritu’s vision. Their point is that there is no reciprocity in nature, no credit built up by good deeds: you’re dealing with something whose power is far greater than yours, and do not expect kindness or fairness. It’s just the way it is.

This ideology, rather than its outer workings, is Biutiful’s true subject matter. It is perhaps the first great film of the post-financial crash era: the sense of hopelessness, of ordinary people being wholly trapped within superstructures far beyond their reach to influence or even understand, is the water in which the movie swims. It’s a compelling rendering of what theorist Mark Fisher calls ‘capitalist realism’: a “pervasive atmosphere… acting as a kind of invisible barrier constraining thought and action.”

In his book named for his theory, Fisher writes that the fact capitalism “has colonised the dreaming life of the population is so taken for granted that it is no longer worthy of comment.” For this reason the fact that economies of any kind are never mentioned in Biutiful’s script is significant, the absence revealing the lack of agency the characters are given to affect their situation. The irony of the Senegalese being brutalised by police for selling the same goods as department stores is never raised, nor even considered. The characters discuss where to sell, how to make more goods, new spaces to move the hustlers into, but never question the rules of the game they are playing. How could they? “The lack of alternatives to capitalism is no longer even an issue. Capitalism seamlessly occupies the horizons of the thinkable,” argues Fisher.

If Iñárritu has flaws as a director they are not as a technician. His exploration of hopelessness and isolation in Biutiful is expertly cinematic; the movie looks washed-out and grainy. Barcelona, one of the world’s iconic tourist cities, becomes tarnished and ugly through Iñárritu’s de-saturated visual scheme. Cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto shoots the film through glassy, reflective surfaces and harsh synthetic light, constantly breaking up the frame and isolating the subjects in shot.

The result is a visualisation of despair. Uxbal does all he can to provide for the sweatshop workers, but it’s not enough: “I bought those fucking heaters because they were the cheapest, because I needed the fucking money”, he sobs; in his words, we can imagine the ghost of Victor explaining to his stricken mother, “I climbed into that tiger pit because I had to, I needed the money…” The crux is here, in the imagery of the tiger and the shark: the belief that the market is not only deadly, not only too powerful to control, but, crucially, that there’s nothing to be done about it. Kill or be killed. There’s no other way. It is, as the cliché goes, the nature of the beast.

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What are we to make of Uxbal’s supernatural abilities? What business has a film set in hard, modern, urban reality in including a character who can see ghosts? In keeping with the film’s concerns of pragmatism and pathology, let us take the question at face value.

In her book Black Sun, psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva questions what effect an encounter with an image of death may have on an observer. “If the living body, in opposition to the rigid corpse, is a dancing body,” Kristeva muses, “doesn’t our life, through identification with death, become a ‘danse macabre’?” In psychoanalytic tradition, death is not representable in the unconscious. It is nonetheless “imprinted” there, says Kristeva, and as it imprints itself on the desires and drives of the living self, “death calls for a distant realism or, better, a grating irony…”

Through this lens, Biutiful’s treatment of death begins to become illuminated. Is the film’s blunt presentation of the death of the Chinese not “a distant realism”? Is it not a “grating irony” that while the rest of the Barcelonan underworld didn’t see the Chinese as people while they were alive, Uxbal sees them as people even after they’re dead? The Self processes the “obsessive presence of Death by stamping with isolation, emptiness or absurd laughter its own imaginative assurance that keeps it alive,” finishes Kristeva. Perhaps this is the meaning of the ghosts of Biutiful: they are a visualisation of Death’s stamp of isolation and emptiness in Uxbal’s imaginary.

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Viewing Biutiful psychoanalytically, the film somehow spiritualises the capitalist condition. Uxbal’s actions set him against the policeman’s description of a world in which people are nothing more than one set of units among any others, and the visualisation of Uxbal’s psychology, if we accept it to be thus, proves it. In both structure and content the film contrasts Uxbal against the cog-like humans of the first act as a unique, three-dimensional, psyche-bearing being.

As Iñárritu was not content to simply illustrate the capitalist system in the first act, nor is he content to simply illustrate an opposition to it in the second. Midway through the film, Biutiful’s themes and ideas begin to become truly affective. They do so by way of a subplot that, until the crucial moment, feels unnecessary at best. The cemetery housing the coffin of Uxbal’s father is being bought for demolition by a construction company, and the coffin must be moved. Uxbal goes to the cemetery and requests to see his father’s body. Everything about this storyline feels gratuitous (the plot is dense enough already, Uxbal’s troubles are overloaded already, the potential for a coffin to be used as a blunt instrument is large), but, as Uxbal’s encounter with the corpse unfolds, it turns out to be the moment where the film comes dialectically alive.

In a back room of the cemetery, a mortician unzips a body bag. As Uxbal steps forward the camera places the viewer level with the mortician as he watches Uxbal, making us aware we, too, are watching him.

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The camera cuts to an over-the-shoulder shot, associating the viewer with Uxbal himself, followed immediately by a reverse cut to Uxbal’s own face. As Uxbal contemplates the body of his father, the viewer cannot help but contemplate the body of Uxbal. We know he is dying; we are witnessing death almost as much as Uxbal is.

By turning Uxbal’s gaze at the body of his father back at the viewer, Biutiful achieves the subversive effect of making its audience contemplate its own mortality. Against the fantasy of eternal youth offered up by Hollywood, Biutiful is a memento mori. For the remainder of the film, as Uxbal goes about preparing himself and his children for his death, the viewer is (uncomfortably) there with him: that’s me. I am also going to die. I also need to prepare myself and my children for my death.

The point of this is quite the opposite of inducing hopelessness. Uxbal dies, as we knew he must, but his gift of connecting with Death – that which makes him fully human – is inherited by his children. His daughter hears the whole of his goodbye to her even though his lips stop moving halfway through it. When Uxbal meets his father in the snow-covered wood of the afterlife, his father repeats an unmistakable line spoken early in the film by Uxbal’s son, suggesting a connection between the two: “Do you know that when owls die, they spit a hairball out of their beak?”

Uxbal’s traits that seem so at odds with the world he lived in – generosity, integrity, treating even the most vulnerable of his contacts with respect and dignity – result not in failure, but in rich human connection, peace, and hope. He is not Nietzsche’s Last Man, weighed down and enfeebled by over-awareness of his time, but a template for a more human way of life than late capitalism’s kill-or-be-killed. Through the viewer’s implication with Uxbal, Iñárritu posits selflessness, what capitalism perceives as one’s greatest weakness, as exactly one method of resisting the capitalist reality principle.

As understated as any moment in the film, Uxbal’s final line in the snow with his father is full of the possibilities outside the system he has departed: “What’s over there?” is a question full of the unknown, of potential, of the new.

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