Bright Lights Film Journal

City Living: Enter the Void/Biutiful

Biutiful, dir. Alejandro González Iñárritu

Enter the Void, dir. Gaspar Noé

Cities are hard to pin down on film. For decades, hardly anyone bothered to try. Usually they’re just scenery, static backdrops in which the action unfolds, but at times, they come into bright focus – Paris in the sixties, New York in the seventies, Los Angeles and Hong Kong in the nineties – only to fade away again.

The past decade hasn’t been especially good to cities on film. Think of all the great cities – Cairo, Shanghai, Lagos, Beijing, Bombay, Moscow – that either aren’t featured in movies or don’t seem real when they are. Of course, exceptions crop up. Lisbon, in Pedro Costa’s movies, is certainly there, though it’s present more as a physical object prone to decay than a place where people meet and interact. Fenyang is alive in Jia Zhangke’s Platform, but his subsequent films are so committed to the work of documenting social upheaval that their locations fade into irrelevance. City of God tried to live up to Rio de Janeiro, and the giddy opening with the chicken chase seemed ready to do just that, though the romanticized violence of the rest of the film drove it in the direction of favela chic. Gomorra was something else again: Naples as the open sore in a landscape of corruption, with the monstrous ‘Snail’ housing development as the spider in the middle of the web; a place so claustrophobic you couldn’t even breathe easy at the beach.

The Tokyo of Enter the Void is a total fake: a dim stage set bathed in perpetual night in which the only light comes from the neon signs above strip clubs and sex hotels. It’s a purely synthetic environment, a vision of hell in pachinko-parlor colors, and it looks terrific, even if it doesn’t resemble any city on earth. Our tour guide is the ghost of a dead drug dealer named Oscar – not even a drug dealer really but a guy who sells drugs, the smallest of the small-fry. Noé keeps his camera at Oscar’s eye-level, peering through his eyes at the lives of his friends in the days after his death, and occasionally travelling into the past to relive particularly traumatic or poignant memories. He dies a half-hour into the movie, shot by the police in a botched drug deal, and as he collapses in a bathroom stall the camera soars upward, going through the ceiling into the sky above before swooping down into the lives of his associates. These include his beautiful sister Linda (Paz de la Huerta), whom Oscar lured to Tokyo and who is now sliding into a life of prostitution and drugs, his dippy friend Alex (Cyril Roy), a painter and recreational drug enthusiast who helpfully explains the Tibetan Book of the Dead before Oscar dies to make the movie’s themes clear, and a few other more peripheral figures – the skuzzy pimp, the pimply user, a pedophile dealer and a predatory wife.

None of these people are terribly compelling (although Roy is daffily likeable, and de la Huerta frequently nude). Neither is Oscar, for that matter. He’s just a speck of un-tethered consciousness; waiting for reincarnation in the right body (the choice of vessel provides most of the suspense in the movie). In the meantime, he’s drawn to the brightest available light like a mosquito, and Noé’s Tokyo, for all its unreality, is visually stimulating enough to turn anyone into bug. It’s a city put together out of visual detritus – screen savers, pinball machines and mirror balls – and a fantasy of what a city can do for the eyes and the appetites. It looks like an acid vision, and to underscore the point Noé shows us some of Oscar’s own trips, pulsing coral reefs of color which might equally well be the inside of his brain or the retinal afterglow left by the world around him.

Oscar travels around this spectral city in a kind of snakes-and-ladders way, alternately taking flight and plunging down its open orifices – drains, grates, open flames – and as he travels, it becomes increasingly hard to separate the outer world from the inner. At the end of his journey the visible city gets replaced with an artist’s model built by one of Roy’s friends, a toy Tokyo in rave-colored plastic, whose central building is a pulsating, neon brothel. It’s the site of Oscar’s reincarnation and some very graphic Human-Animal-style sexual congress, in case anyone missed what was going on.  But the building itself, a summation of Noé loopy cosmology, trumps everything that came before it with a vision of a city within the city that is part psychedelic fantasy and part Tibetan purgatory, a sexual agora in which every desire and every degradation gets filed away in its own shining cube.

In Biutiful, Javier Bardem drags himself through Barcelona like a slug with salt poisoning, always on the verge of shriveling up. He plays Uxbal, a middleman in Barcelona’s grey market, relaying fake goods from Chinese sweatshops to Senegalese street dealers, hooking up building contractors with illegal laborers, and bribing the police to let them work without interference. Bardem tries to be upright in a dishonorable profession, treating his contacts with respect and trying to take an interest in his clients’ welfare. But being honorable isn’t easy – as a crooked police officer tells him, you can’t trust a hungry man – and Uxbal has problems of his own.

He has two young children to take care of, which involves not just keeping them clothed and fed, but also keeping them out of the way of his volatile ex-wife Marambra, who is bipolar, off her meds, and sleeping with his brother. As long as she’s lucid, Marambra (Maricel Álvarez) means well, and the kids are drawn to her, but her mania and addictions mean that violence is always around the corner. But the kids need a mother from somewhere – especially since Uxbal is dying of cancer (it has spread to his bones) and he only has a few months left to make final arrangements and settle his accounts with the world.

Barcelona, as Iñárritu films it, is all periphery: dank basements, rotting apartments, loading docks, and sweatshop floors. The familiar landmarks only feature by happenstance: the beach when dead bodies wash ashore on it, La Rambla when the police swarm it in a crackdown on illegal street sellers (in a terrific, heart-pounding set-piece of kinetic film-making in a film that otherwise tends to move at more of a concentrated stagger than a run) and no fucking Gaudi anywhere (except for a glimpse in the skyline, but what can you do, it’s there).

Bardem picks his way through this landscape, trying to set things right as his body shuts down, but everything he does has the opposite result from what he intended. His interventions entangle him in other people’s lives – a Chinese work boss, his kids’ nanny, the wife of a Senegalese street vendor – but not with particularly good results. In the meantime, he carries on a running dialogue with the dead.  Uxbal has the ability to communicate with ghosts, which doesn’t do him (or them) very much good. It does allow him to have some strange encounters with his long-departed father and offers a way to make some petty cash from the recently bereaved, but at moments of disaster it only makes his guilt worse.

On paper, Biutiful, doesn’t sound promising, what with Bardem wearing a crown of thorns, Iñárritu beating his drum about the human cost of globalization, and some hoary mysticism to boot – but it works, absolutely. In part this is because Bardem stays erect and fascinating no matter how much suffering is thrown at him – his body rejects mawkishness the way Chex were supposed to stand up to milk – and in part it’s thanks to Iñárritu’s pacing, which makes this long film feel gripping even as it suffocates you. But some of the credit has to go Barcelona: Biutiful keeps itself open to the city, which makes the difference between having an idea and having a pulse.