Biutiful (2011) & Unknown (2011) | Review by Hannah Brooks-Motl
Remember the old days when movies about Europe were elegant, attractive, generally beguiling affairs? Someone rode a bicycle down a lane framed with trees, or sat in a sun-lit café sipping espresso. A short but handsome man gesticulated with abandon as a thin woman looked on in a beautiful pout; deep kisses were both given and received on street corners, under caryatids beaming with benevolence. That Europe was like last Friday—when we jumped puddles and drank deep of the grape in a vernal dusk. Then we went to see Biutiful and then we went to see Unknown. And we realized two things: Europe is no longer viable as the charming reservoir from which a million ex-pats fish their hazy projections, catching dreams of improbable glamor; also, it’s not spring yet. How can we even begin to connect these two movies—the unrelenting importance of stunning Javier Bardem facing down death in Buitiful’s grungy Barcelona to the equally yet inversely unrelenting inconsequence of Liam Neeson searching, with his usual arthritic-histrionic version of “acting,” for his identity in the snowy streets of Unknown’s Berlin? As with doing a lot of anything (reading poetry, or solving complex math problems, or attending church), going to see all these movies all the time has made us aware of certain relations, or trends, or even patterns—not so much in the movies themselves, but in what we look for as we watch them. What we notice. What we decide is important to notice.
Unknown is thoroughly dull except for two things: it has a great car chase scene in which the inherently balletic nature of the form is realized in glorious bumper-nudging detail, and enough scenes of the “new Europe”—a continent of demoralized and marginalized immigrants, surveillance, and brutality—to allow us to connect it to Biutiful, which we saw the night before. Biutiful is not dull, but while it’s beautifully shot and acted, lovingly-drawn, and thoroughly sad, it still drags, stretching its runs of horrifically bad luck to marathon mileage. By the movie’s end, when the compromised Chinese factory boss has had to murder his gay lover and poor Javier Bardem pee blood for the camera a second time, we were antsy for something, even a little something, good to happen. Unknown left us antsy in a different way, its tedium borne of near-constant exposition of events we had just witnessed, and the stiff avuncularity Liam Neeson always acts with—though he was outshone in this regard by the icily vapid January Jones. Though as far apart in terms of purpose, audience, and form as movies might go, both B and U ask us to rest our interest on middle-aged men as they search frantically for meaning; both also pretend to flash us scenes of secret underbellies, exposing Europe as the tawdry, crumbling, self-destroying mosaic it is. There are only a handful of stories to tell; the thoughts are few, the forms many, Emerson says. Hard lessons we learned this weekend: go see at least one movie where the actors can act. Don’t go to Europe. Don’t be an immigrant. Everything is relateable through the prism of self. It’s a winter’s winter.