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Playing at the film club: Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958)

Film Club: Biutiful (Iñárritu, 2010)

biutiful
Following last month’s Ikiru, our relaunched film club moves onto a film that was directly inspired by it, Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Biutiful.

Released in 2010, Biutiful was the Mexican director’s fourth film. It followed the major critical successes of his so-called “death trilogy” that consisted of Amores perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003) and Babel (2006). Biutiful shares its theme with those films while breaking away from their style of interweaving narratives. After Biutiful, Iñárritu has gone on to direct the box office hits Birdman (2014) and The Revenant (2015), both of which also won him Academy Awards for Best Director.

Going by both the Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic rankings, Biutiful is Iñárritu’s least well received film. It has often been criticised for its perceived bleakness, contrivance, sluggishness and self-importance. Based on box office records, it is also his only film to have lost money, at least on paper.

So, why are we watching it? Well, for one thing, one person’s bleakness is another’s beautiful melancholy, someone’s sluggishness is another’s pondering tone, and so on. And there is also the wonderful performance of Javier Bardem, for which the actor was awarded Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival.

But more importantly for us, Biutiful is a pretty fascinating take on Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru. The film was modelled after Kurosawa’s work and in addition to sharing a similar storyline, contains numerous references to it. There is actually a lovely article at the Directors Guild of America website, published around the time of Biutiful‘s release, where Iñárritu watches Ikiru and comments on it and how it influenced him. Still, unlike so many remakes and reimaginings, Biutiful stands on its own feet and fully makes its own coherent artistic statement.

When you watch the film, you will also notice that it was produced by a company called Ikiru Films. One might expect it to be a company that was set up just for this film, but in fact this is not the case. The Spanish production company was founded in 2004 and had produced films like the 2006 Perfume before Biutiful, and has continued to work in the industry since.

Biutiful should be widely available in most countries. Netflix has it in some places, while Google Play / YouTube, iTunes and Amazon Prime Video rent it in many others. The DVD and Blu-ray releases are also generally available for purchase, for instance through Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

So, get hold of the film and let us know what you think! Boring or insightful? Melancholy or grim? Beautiful or biutiful?

And what do you make of the Kurosawa connection?


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Discussion

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Ugetsu

Looks like a good choice, Vil. I’ve not seen the film (I must admit I’ve disliked most of Iñárritu’s films I’ve seen, they always seem to me to be too self-important and pompous, although I did enjoy Birdman). I’ll try to track this down. I had no idea it was inspired by Ikiru.

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Vili Maunula

It’s an interesting film. I absolutely loved it when I finally watched it a couple of months ago, but the reception in general seems to have been quite mixed. I’m really curious to hear what everyone here thinks, especially after watching Ikiru.

Like you, I have had rather mixed feelings about Iñarritu’s other films. Still, this one really resonated with me. It might actually be my movie experience of the year.

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BMWRider

Okay, I have to be honest, Christmas is consuming my time. I have the film, I just have not made time for it. Hopefully sometime this week.

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njean

I’m going to write about Biutiful by comparing it with Ikiru.

ENVIRONMENT Ikiru takes place in a post-war Japanese city. The characters are low-level city bureaucrats who spend their working lives doing as little as possible, while seemingly believing that they are doing an excellent job. Their actions (or inactions) are not illegal, and they harm others only in the sense that beneficial public works do not get done. The main character, Watanabe, is a 30-year veteran of this system. Biutiful takes place in present-day Barcelona. Nearly all of the characters are involved in criminal activity: two Chinese bosses operate a sweat shop of illegal female Chinese immigrants; African street vendors sell the products of the shop and are accused of selling drugs as well; a construction boss employs the unqualified male Chinese immigrants (for a kickback, of course); a policeman takes bribes for his silence; and the main character, Uxbal, operates as a go-between, shuttling payoffs among them all. There is never enough money, never enough product to sell, and a constant threat of police disruption. It’s an ugly, sleazy, and dangerous environment.

FAMILY Watanabe is a widower and is estranged from his only son and his wife (though they live with him in his house). So family considerations do not spur Watanabe to action as he contemplates his remaining time. Uxbal has an ex(?)-wife who is bipolar and enjoys acting like a whore (her words). They have two young children – a girl and a boy – and these are the only lights in Uxbal’s life. Securing their future is his major goal as he approaches his death.

ACHIEVEMENT Watanabe, at first hopeless, realizes that he CAN do something worthwhile in his remaining time. He sets about accomplishing it with determination, perseverance, and all his remaining energy. Against great odds, he is successful, and he dies a happy man. Uxbal, in spite of his environment, tries to do the right thing. He feels sorry for the Chinese women, who live and work communally in cramped quarters. He buys heaters for them so that they and the male construction workers won’t be so cold at night. The next morning they are all dead. Uxbal confesses to a confidante that he knew the heaters “weren’t right,” but be bought them anyway because they were cheap. He never imagined that they were deadly. He is stricken with grief and guilt. Another act of kindness turns out better. When the African street vendors are arrested and deported, he takes the penniless wife of one of them (and her baby) into his apartment. But what is he to do about his children? Hoping that things might be better this time, he and the children move back in with his ex-wife. It doesn’t take long to find out that things aren’t better, and he and the children move back to his apartment. The African woman (Ige) becomes a sort of nanny while Uxbal does his street business. As his condition worsens, he gives her all his money and begs her to stay with the children. At first she says no, she doesn’t belong in Spain, she’s going back to Senegal, but ultimately she stays. Mission accomplished. He dies.

TAKE-AWAY Ikiru: Life is brief. Knowledge of imminent death can free one to do bold things. The potential for human change does exist. And most of all, as someone wrote in the old Ikiru thread on this site, “to care and try is to live.”
Biutiful: how about ‘Life’s a bitch and then you die’?
More charitably, here is what Philip French wrote in The Guardian in 2011: “One could say his (Uxbal’s) life ends in tragedy. Yet what we see is a decent man striving to do his best in terrible circumstances. Sharing his pain and observing his struggles, we think of Browning’s line: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/ Or what’s a heaven for?” In this light, his end seems a kind of moral triumph.” In Uxbal’s world there was no opportunity for Watanabe’s great deed. Uxbal did what he could.

DID I LIKE BIUTIFUL? No, I didn’t. The story itself is too complex, too crowded with individual subplots and extraneous characters. It’s as though, in Ikiru, Kurosawa were to give us the back-stories of all the office workers. There are a number of important characters in Biutiful, but with the exception of Uxbal, the children, and Ige, none of them is the least bit likeable. It’s a very unpleasant, gritty world, and I got tired of watching it. In fact, I quit about 2/3 of the way through. Several days later I softened a bit and watched the ending. The good news is that Javier Bardem is terrific, and so are the children and Uxbal’s wife.

Vili, I am very interested in hearing why you liked Biutiful so much.

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Fortinbras

I saw this film last week. I liked it a little bit better than the first time I saw it, a few years ago. I didn’t make the connection to Ikiru at that point. I think Biutiful is not near the quality of Ikiru.

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Vili Maunula

Thank you for the wonderful break-down of the two films, njean!

While I agree with much of what you wrote, on a more fundamental level we seem to react to Biutiful and its world quite differently. Where you see hopelessness, complexity and misery, I see life in its full, monstrous, ragged beauty.

I suppose what most strongly resonates with me about Biutiful is the very manner in which it perverts that notion of beauty. This is quite nicely demonstrated by the piece of dialogue that gives the film its title:

Ana: Dad, how do you spell “beautiful”?
Uxbal: Just the way it sounds.
Ana: As in?
Uxbal: Biu-ti-ful.

If there is a thesis statement in this film, I would say that this scene is it. The family setting in which these lines are delivered is warm and Uxbal’s intentions of helping his daughter absolutely genuine. He thinks that he knows the answer and doesn’t stop to question whether he is actually qualified to help. He thinks that it is easy, but in reality it is more complicated. The end-result is a perversion, something that is almost right but in the end completely wrong.

This pattern is repeated with the immigrant groups. I believe that Uxbal genuinely wants to help them, while also tying to find ways to help his own family. Yet, in the case of both the street vendors and the warehouse workers he overreaches and his efforts only end up making things worse. Much worse.

For me, the film rather wonderfully captures this fundamental perversion that underlies human existence. By failing to understand our limits we, both as individuals and as societies, constantly turn “beautiful” things into “biutiful” ones. We promote our Jesuses, Buddhas and Marxes — which all tend to have their origins in beauty — and so often end up with empty power struggles, wasted resources and asinine destruction. Or, we make absolutely astonishing progress in understanding the world around us and begin to believe ourselves to be in actual command of our environment, only to find out that our hubris has led us down the path of an ecological catastrophe. This kind of examples of “biutification” seem to define our world, both on larger and more personal levels.

Mind you, this is not to say that we should stop overreaching beyond our limits. Only that we should recognise when we do so and thread carefully.

Importantly, the film also emphasises this connection in its opposite direction. The world that the camera shows us is definitely “biutiful”, but the manner in which it presents it is, at least in my view, absolutely “beautiful”. The colours, the editing, the mise-en-scene, the performances. It is an artistic tour de force that reminds us that we should be able to find beauty and meaning even in our worst self-manufactured misery.

Just like Ikiru, Biutiful is a hugely visual film and packed with layers and layers of visual meaning. For instance, the way that the film shows us the spirits of the dead that Uxbal communicates with is I think quite brilliantly done. Just enough to introduce a sprinkling of magic realism and the unknown, but not as much as to turn it into a horror film.

As with Ikiru, backgrounds are often important. One fairly straightforward example is the scene where Uxbal walks into the electronics shop to buy the fateful heaters. Behind him, we can see dozens of screens showing what I assume is a news report about beached whales. This foreshadows the later beaching of the bodies that those heaters end up killing. And does it perhaps also suggest that our actions are to some extent predestined? If not absolutely, at least due to the limits of our capabilities and the circumstances within which we operate.

When I look at Ikiru and Biutiful together, what fascinates me is how well Biutiful stands both on its own, as well as on the shoulders of Ikiru. Even more amazingly, it manages not only to make itself better through its source’s influence, but to actually enhance the original for me. It does this by challenging Ikiru and asking if the kind of well-meaning intention and perseverance that Watanabe exhibits is enough. Or could it actually be a source of our problems in many cases, leading to the “biutification” of our lives.

It definitely isn’t a situation where one should say that either film’s message is right and the other’s wrong, and I don’t think that either film seeks such black-or-white answers to the complex question that it has chosen to tackle. In the end, we must keep in mind that even Ikiru seems sceptical about its core message. When people think about the film, they tend to think about Watanabe’s triumph, but not so much how the film actually ends, with a fairly pessimistic, or at least questioning, note. The park has been built, yes, but the promises made in the wake have been quickly forgotten by Watanabe’s colleagues and normality resumes. As the sole bureaucrat who still remembers and connects with Watanabe’s passion walks past the park, we are left wondering if even he has already given up.

It is this more realistic aspect of Ikiru, rather than the film’s Platonic ideal of Watanabe’s actions, that Biutiful builds on. It presents a contemporary world that doesn’t mould quite as easily as Watanabe’s, one where the struggle for core survival is often more pressing than questions of self-fulfillment.

In Biutiful, this is the concrete situation that the Senegalese woman Ige faces at the end. I interpret the ending with her a little differently than you, njean. Uxbal has indeed given her all of his money with the expectation that she will take care of his family after he is gone. The last that we see of her is at the railway station, with all that money, ready to board a train to the airport. Does she go back to Senegal and reunite her baby with his recently deported father, her husband? Or does she come back and take care of Uxbal’s children? Whatever she chooses, can she be blamed? Uxbal hears Ige come back, but the film is careful not to show her, only a shadowy figure passing by the bathroom door. Her voice is also mixed off centre, distant, muddled, strangely monotonous. Later, we do not see her or indeed Uxbal’s son Mateo — is he still left at the school? — when he and Ana have their conversation at his deathbed. I think the film leaves Ige’s (and by extension also the children’s) fate open to interpretation, much like Ikiru does with the sole bureaucrat who still identifies with Watanabe’s perseverance.

I have seen very few films that take a classic of Ikiru‘s magnitude and manage not to fall on their face entirely. Biutiful is a rare exception, and for me an absolute gem. The world that it depicts may be miserable, but its sheer artistry fills me with hope and positivity, and the dialogue that it establishes with Ikiru has kept me thinking about the film. For me, watching it was a hugely uplifting experience.

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