Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, before seemingly taking a different direction with Birdman (2014), and then another with The Revenant (2015), had a fondness for the inter-locking narrative. Is it fate or coincidence that brings everybody together? It probably depends on your theological disposition.
After Amores Perros (2000) and 21 Grams (2003), Babel (2006) finishes his ‘Trilogy of Death’. Biblical connotations are inherent in the title again with Babel, and Iñárritu, with his history of producing films in two different languages has found an apt title. Babel was his last english language film before Birdman. Unlike the first two however, a car accident is not the emotive energy of the plot and the interlocking narratives are this time, on a global scale.
A married couple in the form of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett are on holiday in Morocco (these are not the first characters we’re introduced to in Morocco, and by the time we do meet them, they have already been implicated in the plot, yet not ‘introduced’). Their third child has recently died. Naturally it has strained their marriage and their holiday looks to be an attempt at re-patching it. In their opening scene, they order drinks at a restaurant, but Susan (Blanchett) tosses the ice cubes out of the glass in worry of being contaminated. They’re drinking coca-colas. They make their way back onto the tourist coach, with the other tourists, and as if in a horrid reflection we revile at – I would never be like that would I?
As the coach takes them through Morocco, Susan is shot. Where the shot could of come from, nobody knows, they are in the middle of nowhere. But it is that gun that links and propels the plot. The shooting is treated as a terrorist attack, and we see flashing images of news reports in the back and sometimes foregrounds of scenes. The gun is something of a red herring though, because the only true object is the screen. Throughout ,our characters are lost in translation, alienated, and contact is prevented by a screen or barrier both visible and not. Rather than bridge worlds, the screen adds to the disconnect whilst the gun brings them together.
And there is always a screen, even in rural Morocco where Susan is being treated by the village ‘vet’, as in the background brands and a television blurt out. You may ask, what about the peasant farmers that we see at the start of the film, but again, we could perhaps take that moment young Yussef is leering at his unclothing sister through a hole in the wall of his house as an embodiment of it. Incestual passions? Hardly, because the wall acts as that barrier that alienates him from any kind of familial connection and allows him to view her as a sexual object and prevents contact from occurring.
Here is also where could perhaps argue that there is a linearity, or a trajectory; from the crumbling hut wall in Morocco, to the invisible one that disconnects the mute, Japanese girl from making any kind of sexual contact. This shows us what the screen represents, even when we can’t see it: something that promises contact and allows us to get so near, but only reiterates how impossibly far away we are. It could be rural anywhere, and it need not necessarily be hyper-modern Japan.
Knowing that a large portion of the film is set between the Mexican and American border and knowing that Iñárritu is Mexican, he perhaps knows more than others, how the barrier and border, so seemingly open, is haltingly shut when it needs to be. The is what the Mexican nanny experiences, who ironically, is taking care of Richard and Susan’s children (the film brings us back to the start where Richard is calling from Casablanca). Here seems to be where the kernel of the film is and where the film seems to be engaging emotionally, rather then sexually. Indeed it evokes anger, as we witness the rank hypocrisy of the American border control. And yes, we know the rank hypocrisy of globalisation (writing this retrospectively however, maybe not so much then), but this is why Babel, and films of Iñárritu seem to be a product of the culture, rather than anything against it.
The film seems to exude the feeling that it thinks itself profound. There was nothing profound about it, but this wasn’t anything to do with the contrivance of the plot, it was more down to this ironic stasis, where it was prevented from saying anything that we don’t already know. This is a narrative born by the conditions and that globalization has produced. The departure then, to what seems to be an attempt at more realism, through The Revenant, only adds to this irony. Iñárritu, in interviews, has discussed the ‘realistic’ conditions that the film was filmed in, to evoke a brutal, unforgiving 19th Century American landscape. There is no CGI, they only filmed during daylight, and the cast effectively experienced the conditions they were trying to depict in the film. It is visceral, but does it make it real? Let’s take the lesson from Babel and pornography, echoing Zizek; the closer pornography takes us to more real, and more graphic sex, the opposite is actually happening and the bigger and emptier the abyss prevails to be.
Iñárritu is an ironist rather than a realist, and this is perhaps why Birdman stands apart because irony was the perfect tool for the job. The realer he and other film-makers try to get (Iñárritu works with Emmannuel Lubezki’s, who’s immersive cinematography is becoming trademark) and make it more so for the viewer, the further and further away it gets. The viewer of course is stuck behind the screen. Leonardo Di Caprio, will probably win that Oscar the world thinks he deserves for his realistic depiction of Hugh Glass.