The characters in the films of Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel) have traditionally been fragment-people, pieces in a puzzle that has to be assembled by the viewer; only at the end of these films, when we realise how these elements do or do not fit together, can we form a solid opinion of the filmmaking at play - a bold strategy that has come, with each successive release of this nature, to seem like a stalling tactic. Iñárritu's latest Biutiful looks to break with this tradition in focusing on a single character who sits at the very centre of such a web of interconnectivity.
Javier Bardem's Uxbal bears the weight of, if not the world, then an entire support network upon his burly shoulders - plus the remnants of a rat's-tail haircut that is very nearly as unadvisable as the sociopathic bowl he sported in No Country for Old Men. A fixer on the streets of Barcelona, Uxbal spends his days brokering deals between the city's migrant Chinese and African communities, performing some kind of peacemaking service for the bereaved at a local funeral parlour, and sorting out the cremation of his own father. These pressures have started to exact a heavy toll: Uxbal's marriage has been ripped asunder, leaving him to raise his two kids on Weetabix and sugar alone while his ex takes up with his feckless brother. During a routine visit to the bathroom one morning, he finds himself pissing blood.
The structure is primarily linear, with only a couple of pre-credits flashforwards, shifting us chronologically from point A (the happy marriage) to point B (Uxbal making shady arrangements in the woods) to keep us on our toes. The questioning this time lies less in how this all fits together than what the film's purpose is, what Iñárritu is getting at. I think he thinks he has real tragedy on his hands, the downfall of one working man, yet as social realism goes, Biutiful proves peculiarly grandiose, composed of more artfulness than harsh truth: I refer you to the story a cop contact of the protagonist tells about a mutual acquaintance who "moved to Murcia to train tigers in a circus", or the marital row that ends with the Bardemian flourish "My love, what you see up there isn't stars - it's your nervous system!"
The suffering of the saintly Uxbal is characterised as closer to Christ than, for example, anyone in a Ken Loach movie. We plod along in the soulful Bardem's wake as he soulfully gazes out of windows, soulfully upchucks in back alleys and soulfully heads into lap dancing clubs at the time of his greatest need, where the film embarks upon a show of phony piety in the face of so much tits and arse the camera can barely drag itself away. This is what happens when a name arthouse director gets to a certain point in their career when they're being indulged by their producers, and no longer just backed.
Remind yourself how simple, direct and thrilling Amores Perros was, how alert it seemed to the energy and rhythms of the streets. Now here's Iñárritu in the press notes, trying to find the words to justify Biutiful's existence: "Since the film's inception, I was never interested in making a movie about death, but a reflection in and about life when our inevitable loss of it occurs. Modern society suffers, among many things, from a profound thanatophobia. For this reason, I realize the formal and thematical contradiction of creating a sordid poem about an enlightened man while he is falling into the darkness of death and the unknown is a challenge... If Babel was an opera, Biutiful is a requiem."
Actually, it's a wallow, the urgency in the filmmaker's earlier work replaced by the complacency of someone who knows that, with the right star in place, he can get anything funded and shown at festivals, not to mention picked up for full international distribution. Bardem suffers so that we don't have to; so that upmarket audiences can feel good about their own serene lives for a two-and-a-half hours - and then emerge from the Curzon Mayfair safely untouched by the whole experience.
Biutiful opens in selected cinemas from Friday.