Published on December 24th, 2006 | by Hans Fruck0
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s new film, Babel, is tedious, joyless, absurd, and pretentious. It has, of course, earned rapturous reviews from critics worldwide.
If you’ve seen either of González Iñárritu’s previous films (Amores Perros, 21 Grams), you’ll know what to expect from Babel: a multi-stranded story, an ensemble cast, chronological tricksiness, and a dreary obsession with misfortune that masquerades as profundity.
Babel comprises four stories connected by the most unlikely twists of fate. A Moroccan farmer gives his two young sons, Ahmed (Said Tarchani) and Yussef (Boubker Ait El Caida), a rifle to protect their goats from jackals. The boys foolishly, but without malice, test the range of the rifle by firing at a tourist bus passing on a road far below them. American tourists Susan (Cate Blanchett) and her husband Richard (Brad Pitt) are travelling on the bus. Susan is seriously wounded by the rifle shot. Meanwhile, back home in San Diego a Mexican nanny, Amelia (Adriana Barraza), is left to care for Susan and Richard’s children. She takes the children south of the border to Mexico to attend her son’s wedding, driven there by her volatile nephew, Santiago (Gael Garcia Bernal). The fourth, and best, storyline involves Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) a deaf-mute Japanese girl struggling to cope with the suicide of her mother and the casual cruelty of the hearing world.
Like González Iñárritu’s other films, and last year’s Oscar winner, Crash, there’s a six-degrees-of-separation appeal to Babel. Its multistranded story shows how the most innocuous actions can be the catalyst for distant and catastrophic effects. It insists on the deep interconnectedness of our world and, at the same time, shows how we’re atomised along racial, cultural and linguistic lines. This is the film’s controlling irony: that we’re all simultaneously connected yet estranged.
What’s unpalatable about Babel, just as it was about 21 Grams and Crash, is that happenstance is only ever seen as an opportunity for things to go wrong, never for them to go right. With dispiriting insistence, every story slumps into lucklessness, anguish, and despair. This wouldn’t be so bad – disconnection is a worthy subject – if the film didn’t work so hard and so implausibly to contrive its depressing outcomes. So much of Babel’s alienation and despair is phoney. It’s po-faced melodrama and not the flinty-eyed realism it aspires to. It’s an inverted fairytale.
There’s a telling scene in Babel. Susan, teetering on the brink of death, lying on the floor of a mudbrick shanty in the hinterlands of Morocco, confesses shamefacedly to Richard that she’s pissed herself, and that she needs to go again. Richard gets a pan for Susan and they painfully, laboriously manoeuvre her so that she’s perched over it. While doing so, she and Richard, who haven’t exchanged a kind word or glance in the entire film, start kissing passionately. González Iñárritu and his collaborator, writer Guillermo Arriaga, can’t let love, generosity, and communication stand on its own. It always has to be slathered in melancholy, selfishness, and squalor.
The dice is similarly loaded when it comes to the actions of Susan and Richard’s fellow bus travellers. The elderly tourists are fearful, selfish, and xenophobic – barely more than a caricature of The Western Tourist. Call me an optimist, but their actions – I won’t go into detail – seemed unfeasibly mean-spirited. Likewise, the depiction of the two Moroccan boys. Not content with having them accidentally shoot someone, González Iñárritu has the younger one spy on his equally young sister (she doesn’t mind) while she’s undressing. Despite the boy seeming impossibly young (eight or nine), he later masturbates, presumably while fantasising about his sister.
No doubt reality has its seamy side, but so much of Babel seems implausibly debased, more the result of a director straining for effect, than a clear-eyed view of reality. Even viewers who can swallow all this may baulk at Amelia and Santiago’s return trip to the US with the children. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that this is the most implausible turn of events in the film, and that’s saying something.
Babel’s plot twists are unbelievable. Its anguish phoney. And too many of its actions unmotivated. Indeed, as the misfortunes, misunderstandings, and miscalculations spiral cyclonically out of control, you wonder where it’s all going to end. War? Murder? Mass suicide? It all seems like a not-so-subtle plea to be taken seriously. And evidently the plea has worked, because some viewers and most critics have found this self-important melodrama revelatory.
Only the Japanese storyline about the deaf-mute girl, Chieko, is engaging.
At least Crash, for all its fallibilities, was interesting. Babel isn’t even that. For the most part, it’s excruciatingly, teeth-grindingly, head-cuppingly, temple-massagingly dull. Quite an achievement for such a busily plotted melodrama. The splintered, heavy-handed plot kept dissipating Babel’s meagre magic. Susan and Richard’s storyline is, from start to finish, pitched at a gruellingly heightened level – a flaw it shares with 21 Grams. The other storylines are a combination of uninvolving and implausible.
Only the Japanese storyline about the deaf-mute girl, Chieko, is engaging. She’s estranged from her father, her mother’s dead, and Chieko’s romantic advances to various men are all rebuffed. Her isolation and despair is palpable. The scene in a Japanese nightclub is the film’s best – strobing lights, with the pulsating beats that fade and return as González Iñárritu takes you in and out of the deaf girl’s perception. It’s astounding and empathetic, and for a few crystalline moments, it takes you out of yourself and into the world of another. In short, it reminds you of all the things missing from the other storylines.
This film is one occasion where I’m not so much swimming against the tide as swimming against the entire Gulf Stream. In one shining sequence in one of Iñárritu’s four storylines, I discern shards of the beauty about which everyone else waxes lyrical. But subtract that scene and I’m unmoved, utterly, by González Iñárritu’s much-trumpeted brilliance. Worse. I find myself frustrated. What everyone else sees in this director, I don’t. They see freshness and originality. I see coincidence, mulitiple storylines, and chopped chronology calcifying into a formula. They see complex meditations on the affinity and otherness of one person to another. I see characters that are marionettes in the service of glum fatalism. They see great formal beauty. I see striking scapes mediocrely framed and photographed.
So I guess when it comes to Babel, to 21 Grams and to Alejandro González Iñárritu, I’ll continue to scuff my feet on the sidelines. You’ll know me: I’ll be the one wailing, and insisting the emperor’s got no clothes.
–Hans Sebastian Fruck