“To be intelligible”, Oscar Wilde famously said, “is to be found out.” It’s a dictum that director Alejandro Inarritu and script writer Guillermo Arriaga seem to have taken to heart. To watch their latest collaboration – Babel – is to be desperately hustled; like witnessing the professional hokum of a witch doctor, who hopes that if he chants his spells seriously enough you’ll believe in them without asking what they mean. Because that’s all that Babel is in the end: an exercise in beautiful gibberish, a testament to the idea that no matter what language they speak, people everywhere have nothing meaningful to say.
There’s a great deal that’s poignant about Babel, most of it to do with a terrible waste of film-making capability. Raw talent washes through this film like testosterone – Inarritu has a fierce ability to create scenes of a kind of throwaway naturalness, to capture the intonations and gestures that make what’s on the screen seem genuine. Just watch the wedding scenes in the film, or the interactions with the people of the Moroccan village, and you’ll see just why Inarritu deserves the praise he gets. Putting a shot like that together and making it feel exactly right is a rare gift indeed.
Which is why it’s even more of a pity that this incredible talent is being used on a script that seems to have been cobbled together from back issues of Lonely Planet and a roll of Scotch Tape. Shifting between four languages, four stories and three geographic locations, Babel is a shrill cacophony of images and stories whose only virtue is that, like a five year old playing with trains, it switches you to a new track the minute you start getting bored with the old one. The film-makers fondly imagine, no doubt, that they’re creating a dramatic collage, but what we really get is just a pointless jumble. The stories by themselves are thin and fanciful and the coincidences that join them together are so far-fetched that its little wonder that the film has to travel half way across the world to make them work.
There are, I think, two problems with Arriaga’s script. The first is the tenuousness of its connections. It isn’t just that the script relies on an overdose of coincidences to come together, it’s also that these coincidences seem to lack any guiding force. Coincidence by itself is not an issue – some of the finest works of literature rely on coincidences that are, if not completely outrageous, at least substantially improbable (just skim through the plot of Midnight’s Children, for example, or, for that matter, the storyline of Pride and Prejudice) – but even coincidence, in fiction, has a kind of logic. There is a reason, deriving out of the character’s personality or circumstance, why he or she performs the action that leads to the improbable outcome. And, equally importantly, there is a sense of dramatic necessity – the coincidence is critical to both the meaning of the story as well as its subsequent evolution. Never mind how unlikely it is that Darcy should know Wickham, he has to know him not only because he has to be able to help Elizabeth in her hour of need, but because without that connection we could not get so sharp a contrast between the character of the two men. And after all, knowing Wickham’s character it seems almost certain that his back story should be something of the sort that it is, so why not at Pemberly? Over the top coincidence is acceptable, then, so long as it serves dramatic purpose.
In Babel, however, the coincidences do no such thing. The stories are truly independent, and the connections between them are little more than feeble apologies for placing them together in a script. Would the ‘Mexican’ story have been any different if the parents of the children had simply been away on vacation and not been the ones who got shot at? Or conversely, would the trials that the parents go through be any worse if their children had been safely at home (as, in fact, they were – their subsequent adventure only happens later)? If the rifle that shot the American tourist had come from a farmer in Tennessee instead of a Japanese businessman would it have made any difference? And does the ‘Japanese’ story really haveto be set in Japan or could it just as easily have taken place in Manhattan? The point is that too much in the plot seems gratuitous – coincidences are created, complications artificially added and locales changed simply so that the film can include one more language, a few more locations, an extra shot or two. This is the cinematic equivalent of talking for the pleasure of hearing your own voice. Take away the overwrought links, the fraught editing, the restless back and forth between stories, the pointless scrambling of chronology, and what you have is just four twenty-five minute TV episodes – well made, but fairly boring.
The second problem with the script is that it doesn’t seem to have anything to say. The least you could expect at the end of all this ceaseless to and fro is the emergence of some overall pattern, some common theme. This never really happens. Inarritu and Arriaga would like to claim, I suspect, that the film is about the way in which we are all victims of circumstances beyond our control, how a random accident somewhere can trigger a chain of events that leaves us helpless. The trouble is that most of the characters here aren’t helpless at all, and their troubles seem more or less self-inflicted. If you give a child an assault rifle loaded with live ammunition and he then goes and shoots at a bus and (imagine that!) hurts someone, you’re hardly an innocent victim of circumstance, not by a long shot. And ditto if you’re stupid enough to smuggle two children across the border without their parent’s permission and then have your clearly drunk nephew drive you home; or if you insist on throwing yourself at much older men in the most inappropriate way possible just because your hormones are out of whack. In a world where so many people are genuine victims of tragic events they have no control over, and therefore deserving of our sympathy (victims of tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, terrorist attacks, US military invasions) to make a movie about people who invent their own problems by acting like stupid children seems an act of sheer wilfulness. If Inarritu had made this as a comedy, it might conceivably have worked, but he’s clearly trying to make you feel sorry for the characters, and their stories just don’t have the emotional authenticity to make us feel that. There’s a germ of a great idea somewhere in this script, but to realise that idea would require a talent for simplicity, for telling an uncomplicated story about real people without adding unlikely plot twists and unnecessary detail. A Babel that was half as clever would be twice as good.
The performances in the film are a mixed bag. Pitt wanders through the film looking as if he’s still in a daze from having seen Clooney in Syriana, Blanchett (who’s exquisite in Notes on a Scandal) is so bland here that if it weren’t for the bullet hitting her you’d never suspect she had blood in her veins. Bernal puts in a surprisingly competent turn as the family rogue, and Rinko Kikuchi manages to pull off a mixture of vulnerability and sexual aggression, though only with the help of some explicit scenes. Personally, my pick of the cast was Adriana Barraza, whose performance was one of the few on-screen that seemed natural and effortless.
Overall then (and no matter what the Oscars say), Babel is a failure – an overplotted and frantic mess of a movie that survives by being just incoherent enough to keep us from walking out midway. Inarritu and Arriaga need to work much, much less hard.