This morning I arrived later than usual -- 8:20 -- to the 8:30 screening of the new Alejandro González Iñárritu main competition entry "Biutiful." The panic was obvious from two blocks away. The Lumiere, the festival's biggest theater, was almost full and there were scores of people pressing the barricades. Who enters in a moment like this this is strictly a matter of hierarchy. Only one type of badge was being permitted. The volunteers manning the gate were waiting for enough of these badge-holders to gather so they could pull the gate back to allow those people to enter, also letting in the potential deluge of shovers. I was lucky enough to have the proper badge. So did the American woman to my right.
Having seen me show the volunteer my badge and having heard him tell us all that we'd be permitted to come in, she insisted on shoving hers in his face -- over and over. "I have a white badge. You have to let me in. I need to be inside. What's wrong with you?" Her desperation was stressful. She had the tone of a woman trying to get out of a burning building -- or, as the case may be, appease an unfeeling editor. Either way, it's a classically unpleasant Cannes moment, where entitlement and fear can bring out the worst in a person. Eventually she tried to arm her way past me. I told her we were headed in the same direction and at the same time. This did little to mollify her.
The perverse (if obvious) upside of panic at a film festival is that you know what people would kill for or die for in order to see. It's the inverse movie equivalent of running for high ground before a disaster. "Biutiful" is a movie you should be proud to say you acted like a wild animal to see. Iñárritu has been an insufferable filmmaker, suffusing every frame of his movies -- "Amores Perros," "21 Grams," "Babel" -- with a sense of importance, which is not the same as achieving actual importance.
But that distinction wouldn't matter to him. Iñárritu strives to make his art about life without ever demonstrating that he himself has actually lived. His breakup with Guillermo Arriaga, who wrote the first three movies, seems liberating. Iñárritu no longer has to follow his ex-collaorator's elliptical pretensions, and this new movie is stronger for it, forgoing the temporal origami for a less contorted narrative.
Of course, this is still a movie that Arriaga could have written. Along Barcelona's penniless underbelly, Javier Bardem is working all the angles -- construction, counterfeit merchandise, clairvoyance, deals with the Chinese -- to make enough to money to maintain the filthy apartment he shares with his two kids and, when she stops in, his bipolar wife. A cancer diagnosis in the first 12 minutes (someone's always slowly dying in an Iñárritu joint) telegraphs the sort of emotional situation were in -- and, frankly, I'm tired of watching this virile actor waste away on screen. But Iñárritu sustains a level of absorbing grandiloquence. A brutal chase sequence between the Barcelona police and some African street vendors would make John Frankenheimer slap himself in envy. And there's a propulsively surrealist scene in a nightclub where the dancers' nippled derrieres look like they could use a bra. There's a love of suffering. There's a lot of decay. There's a lot of directing (his camera is utterly promiscuous).
But when it counts, Iñárritu got to me -- or rather Bardem's courageously grim performance did. He makes you feel for a character the movie probably doesn't need -- certainly not in almost every scene. The truth is that the plights of the people he's helping -- two Chinese businessmen, a Senegalese mother, that unstable ex-wife -- are the better movie. With the sickly but goodly Bardem, Iñárritu is permitted to indulge his worst impulses.
"Biutiful" takes impoverished suffering to heights unseen since "Les Miz." Iñárritu doesn't salute the poor's dignity. He salutes himself for daring to dignify the poor, with majestic cinematography, superb sound design, and painstakingly melodramatic art-direction. But poverty isn't something in which one luxuriates.Without Bardem, you'd have a depressing exploration of multiculturalism among Europe's immigrant underclass. But that movie was called "Code Unknown," it was extraordinary, and Michael Haneke made it 10 years ago.
As one of the people who failed to sufficiently hate "Biutiful," I had plenty to fight about in the hallways when it was over. We've actually been talking about it all day, which we haven't really been doing since the festival started last week. People have already started calling the movie "Peeyewiful." But it's hardly that bad. The new Jean-Luc Godard film, "Film Socialisme," should be, I don't know, better, clearer. The great old man is in fine form for about 45 minutes or so, all of which are set on a Mediterranean cruise ship. Because when you think of the hero who made "Bande à Part," "Pierrot Le Fou" and "Contempt"...
The irony is very much the point. The movie simmers with a sort of righteous anger over capitalism and the packaging of imperial, war-torn, besieged pasts as tourist traps or sail-by spots (Barcelona twice in a day!). It succeeds, for a time, as not-so-arbitrarily assembled sound and image. The film is selectively subtitled in English so that what appears on screen achieves a kind of backhanded, mock-Native American gibberish ("watch" "notell" "time," for example) that, 100 or so minutes later, becomes instructional.
Godard is playing on the boat. He pulls the rug from under you so that the daffy inserts ("Things," says one screen; "Like This," says another) acquire a direness after so much repetition: Things like... this cruise, with all you ignorant white consumers, are why we're in the mess we're in, the film implies. But all of "Film Socialisme" is implication. Godard argues obliquely -- even more so than in "Notre Musique" and "In Praise of Love," which were somewhat more direct in their sense of polemics.
Rage over historical atrocity and America's effect on Europe have corroded Godard's formal focus. At this stage in his career, he expects that we expect him to puzzle us, we expect difficulty. He has traveled so far down the experimental rabbit hole that it's unclear whether the final hour, which is set near a filling station then ends with a handful of montages, signals laziness or poetic injustice.
Either way, repeated viewings might clear things up. Or they might just confer more obscurity. I would have asked the man himself, but Godard failed to show up for today's late-morning press conference, obliquely citing "Greek-type problems," in a note that the French paper La Libération alleges the director sent to the festival. Does that mean his E.U. loan hasn't come in time? Meanwhile, "Film Socialism" is available here for your consideration, for an unsocialistic but not unreasonable 7 euros.