BABEL directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, written by Guillermo Arriaga, with Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Gael García Bernal and Koji Yakusho. 143 minutes. A Paramount Vantage release. Subtitled. Opens Friday (November 3). For venues and times, see Movies, page 84. Rating: NNNNN
Cannes - Interviews at Cannes often happen over meals to save time, and it's always a trade-off. If your subject is distracted by the velvety salmon or bottomless champagne, he's also more likely to reveal telling character quirks in the presence of food. Alejandro González Iñárritu, for example, eats lunch just like a director.
Talking about Babel in the suitably cacophonous restaurant at the Martinez Hotel, the Mexican filmmaker immediately rejects the first dish he's offered.
"What is that?" he asks. "Fish? I will not have fish. I would love some soup. And can I have some cheese?"
As his handler scurries away to fetch off-the-menu soup and cheese, Iñárritu explains how deep down we are all the same.
"What makes us miserable is what brings us together," he says, reaching for a piece of bread. "What makes us happy is what makes us different."
Babel follows 21 Grams and Amores Perros in jutting together disparate shards of narrative to build an emotional whole. The plot swings from Morocco to Tokyo to the U.S.-Mexican border.
"But my point," Iñárritu insists, "is that it's not about what makes us different. What makes us sad really makes human beings attach to each other and empathize. We have two things that make us sad - the incapacity of being loved or feeling love, and the vulnerability of the ones we love. This is universal."
And so even though Babel dramatizes the blizzard of languages and experiences that separate us from one another, the moments Iñárritu values most in the film are, as he puts it, "very small ones." He cites an instance where Cate Blanchett's character touches her husband's (Brad Pitt) hand.
"The human touch doesn't lie or need language or translation," he says. "That's the point for me. Normally films try to make archetypes: Japanese, weirdos; Arabs, dangerous; Americans, superficial. In this film they are the same."
Iñárritu is a tall, imposing man who speaks every sentence with bracing conviction. Even his long hair screams sincerity. While critics have swarmed all over the kaleidoscopic plot structures he creates with writer Guillermo Arriaga, it's in fact the direct, post-ironic emotion that marks his films as 21st-century ones.
"Art should create catharsis," he says simply. "It should create interior emotional movement. If you're not able to do that, then it fails as a piece of art. That's what I'm looking to do when I make a film." He adds as an afterthought, "...without being manipulative or melodramatic."
While Babel still dazzles with its polynarrative leaps - a trend that's been building since Traffic and now has Paul Haggis (Crash) and Stephen Gaghan (Syriana) as its American champions - Iñárritu feels he's toned down the dicing and slicing.
"There was not as much need for this story to be told in a fragmented way," he says. "Watching a film is already a very fragmented emotional experience. I didn't want to distract people with the mental exercise of putting together the story. Already the different languages and countries made it complicated."
Instead of fish, Iñárritu decides on steak, but he has a hard time telling the waiter how he wants it cooked.
"Almost well done," he fumbles. "How do you say that?"
BABEL (Alejandro González Iñárritu) Rating: NNNN
Babel interlocks four stories set in Morocco, Japan, California and Mexico to come to the unshocking conclusions that every action has consequences and communication is hard.
Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett play a couple who suffer a bad accident in the African desert, but star power is subsumed into virtuoso filmmaking, as Iñárritu (21 Grams, Amores Perros) swoops his camera in and out of the lives of characters scattered across three continents.
Because his films guarantee maximum emotional impact, Babel is sure to leave most viewers thrilled and drained. There might also be a third, delayed side effect - indifference. Strip away Iñárritu's breathtaking style and skill and Babel ain't deep. But, then, deep ain't the only road to catharsis.